EPHEMERAL SMILES

THEOLOGY / PHILOSOPHY / LITERATURE

TWO BOOKS GOING FREE ON KINDLE!

SCHOOL IS OUT today for many, and to celebrate BOTH Prince, Twins Dragon AND How Zantheus Fell into the Sky are going FREE on amazon from today until Tuesday, for Kindles and the free Kindle app which works on iPads and phones!

Just follow this link for PTD:

 

And this link for HZFITS:

 

Re-shares and/or reviews appreciated!

Also, here’s a sketch of Hannah and Chloe, two of the main characters of Prince, Twins, Dragon, drawn by my sister:

IMG-20170718-WA0000

 

SHORT STORY: THE TANDEM FICTION ASSIGNMENT

This is one of the best things I have ever written (so far). That may not be saying much, but you might find it funny. 

*

A famous anecdote about a tandem story writing assignment, where a man and a woman had to write a short story in tandem, taking turns to write a section each, sometimes does the rounds on the internet.

You can read about it, and the original piece, here:

http://www.snopes.com/college/homework/writing.asp

Here’s another one. You can read it here or on Wattpad.

*

THE TANDEM FICTION ASSIGNMENT

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Assignment: For this exercise, collaborate with the partner I assign you on a short story, taking turns to write three pages each. The story can be any genre, with any characters, premise and plot that you want, and your partner must continue on organically from what you write, and vice versa, each time you swap. This will teach you to write in different genres that you are not familiar with and about the way that other people write.

*

Stephanie was excited. Tonight she was going out for the first time in months, at last putting an end to a socialising drought that had gone on far too long. She had been invited to go out dancing by some of the girls from work and she was particularly excited because Darren, from Human Resources, was going to be there. She thought about him now as she dried her hair with her hair-dryer and applied her lipstick to her lips with expert skill at the same time. Darren was so very dashing: tall, with broad, muscular shoulders, arms that looked like he worked out at the gym, deep blue eyes, rugged facial hair, and astoundingly handsome, well-chiselled features. She let out a little sigh, inaudible under the sound of the hair dryer. He was so dreamy. And that was just his looks. He also had the personality to boot. Darren was kind, funny, and self-confident.

She wondered if this might be the night when she would finally snag him, when he would finally make his move on her. She had been flirting with him for weeks, having ‘chance’ encounters at the water cooler, throwing him sly, suggestive glances now and again, and making sure that they were in all the same meetings. He had to be interested in her; she knew that he was. After all, who wouldn’t be? She was a catch. She was gorgeous, clever and funny, with a successful, high-paying job and a promising career. She was an absolute catch. Wasn’t she? Never mind that she hadn’t had a boyfriend in over a year. She just hadn’t met the right guy yet.

Until now. Now she had met Darren. The latest phase in her love life had just been a temporary blip, and tonight that would all change, anyway, she told herself as she selected a dress. Nothing too tarty, she still retained her self-respect and trying too hard never worked well with men. In any case, she was a powerful, independent, 21st century woman; she didn’t need to demean herself in order to lure him in. Her looks and personality would do that by themselves. She was going to go out and get him. She had seen what she wanted and she was going to take it. She settled on a classy little red number which accentuated all her best assets but also left a healthy amount to the imagination, and slipped it on.

She inspected herself in the mirror. Her brown locks curled round her shoulders. Her lips were red and big. Her bust was full and prominent. Yes, she looked stunning. She was a knockout. And tonight was going to be her night. How could Darren not fall for her in this dress? Tonight she was going to make her catch. She frowned in the mirror. There was only one problem, one small obstacle standing in her way, one little irritant frustrating her in the attainment of her goal…Veronica.

Veronica, one of her colleagues who worked in Sales. Tall, blonde, and buxom, Veronica was highly proficient at ensnaring men in her wily, treacherous, seductive clutches. And Stephanie knew that Veronica had her sights set on Darren too, She had been using all the same tricks on her, and she was clearly after him as well, the crafty minx.

Stephanie considered all this as she put her sexiest leather jacket on over her dress and went to find her car keys in her bedside table drawer. Veronica would almost certainly be there tonight. How was she going to stop Veronica from ruining her plans, from getting in her way and preying on Darren? She knew that, given the proper chance, Darren would choose her over Veronica–really there was no contest. Veronica may be superficially good looking and have a certain whorish appeal, but she was utterly shallow and really quite a nasty piece of work at the end of the day. Stephanie, on the other hand, was thoughtful, deep, caring and compassionate; she never spoke badly of people and was always able to see the best in them. She just needed to show this to Darren, She just needed to find a way for him to get to know her properly. Then Veronica would be thwarted. Then Darren would be hers–she was sure of it.

She began to concoct strategies for how she could do this as she got into her car and started the ignition. While she drove to the station, she reflected that the key would be to engage him in conversation as much as possible. She was a quick-witted, intelligent woman, and as long as she got the chance to demonstrate this, she would be fine. That way she could keep his attention, maybe give him some initial hints to warm him up, rub his arm, hold eye contact, that sort of thing. She would get him to buy her a drink and then proceed from there, coaxing him onto the dance floor when he had fully fallen under her irresistible charm, and then making her proper move there. It would be easy!

Her heart was racing and her breath was quick with anticipation by now. She parked her car and then got out and walked into the station, fumbling in her purse for her oyster card and tapping it on the ticket barrier as she went through. While she descended the escalator to the platform she could feel her pulse pounding in her ears. She hadn’t felt this alive in a long time. The tube train was predictably very full, but she managed to find a seat squished in between a businessman commuting home late and a teenager reading a Kindle. She looked up, and who should she see opposite her but…

 

…an enormous, green and purple dinosaur. Stephanie’s puny mind was completely blown. What was this fantastical creature doing here, in the middle of her boring, completely predictable life? She nearly let out a scream. Why was nobody else reacting to this massive dinosaur? At the same time grotesque and comic, it had big, pointy teeth, ridged spines down its back, a huge tail and two beady eyes. The other passengers simply continued to stare blankly straight ahead or carried on with what they were doing. Could nobody else see it? What was going on? The dinosaur was looking right at her. She didn’t know whether to call out for help, or get off the train or just stay still where she was. All that rubbish about going out for the evening and Derren and Victoria or whatever their names were had gone out of her mind. Here she was being confronted by something far more interesting, far more worthy of her attention. The Universe was challenging her and she had a chance to exert her own free self in the face of it, to show what she was really made of, to become who she was really meant to be.

A voice spoke in her mind without warning, and somehow she knew it was coming from the dinosaur sitting in front of her. It was deep and snarly, but with a tinge of a French accent, again both horrible and amusing all at once.

“Greetings!” said the dinosaur in her mind. “I am the evil demon of Cartesian hyperbolic doubt, in dinosaur form. I am your gateway to a far more interesting, far more important, mind-expanding world that far suprasses the pathetic little preoccupations to which you have thus far devoted your measly existence. But in order to enter into it, you must first defeat me! Choose now whether you will face the challenge or shrink back into pitiful mediocrity!”

Stephanie’s mind raced. A forked decisional path lay out before her. Should she run away and get out of here, away from this absurd monster that had just materialised before her? Or should she stand and face the creature and see what treasures it was guarding? She found herself on a knife edge. She had never felt so…free.

In spite of herself and the trivial pursuits with which she had until recently been filling her time, she was intrigued by this new offer of a portal into a larger, greater, more wonderful world.

“I will fight you, demon,” she thought inside her head.

“Good!” said the demon to her telepathically.

Stephanie jumped at the noise of something like a cross between an electric organ and the first ‘pop’ of a thunderclap. A big golden warhammer appeared in her hand. It was encrusted with jewels on the hilt and had runes carved into the head.

“Here is your weapon,” said the demon in his baritone snarls.

Stephanie looked around her. The other passengers on the train still seemed completely oblivious. No one even took a second look at her. They remained utterly passive, engrossed in their newspapers, their devices, or nothing at all. How could this be? Were they blind to the rest of the world? Were they even real?

“Why can nobody else see you or my weapon?” thought Stephanie.

“They are blinded,” said the demon in her mind, “by their own apathy and ignorance. They have not yet awoken to the true possibilities of independent thought and philosophical enquiry. Or, perhaps, as you think, they are not even real. This is your first challenge: To defeat me, you must answer these questions: What if reality as you know it is an illusion? What if all the people you know are mere fictions of your imagination, or the result of the deception of me, an evil demon who can alter and manipulate your sensory impressions at will? What if nothing is ‘real’, like in that well known film the title of which is a copyrighted trademark and which you watched that one time when you were a teenager? To defeat me, you must answer these questions!”

The train carriage around Stephanie distorted and morphed, the people disappearing along with  it, and all of a sudden she found herself in a stone-tile-floored arena, in the middle of an empty coliseum, the heat of the sun beating down on her.

The demon rushed at her, roaring, this time with its mouth, “Nothing that you know is real! All is an illusion!”

Stephanie dodged out of the way and rolled to avoid the monster’s charge, with a dexterity that surprised even her. She had no time to think about how strange this all was–she had to attend to the problem at hand.

“Reality can’t be an illusion!” she said to the demon, brandishing her warhammer. “It’s all I’ve ever known!”

“Yes,” said the demon, coming at her again and throwing a clawed swipe at her head, “but what if ‘all you’ve ever known’ is a lie?” Stephanie ducked, then side-stepped two more swipes to the left and the right. “Has that never crossed your mind? What if there’s another ‘reality’ that your mind has been closed off to?”

The demon paused for breath and Stephanie saw her moment. She struck at its abdomen. “But that’s just silly!” she said. “I mean, I have dreams all the time, and I’m perfectly able to distinguish those from waking reality!”

The creature leapt clear of her strike, high into the air, did a backflip, then came back down, landing behind her. “Ah, but what if your waking experience pertains no more to an actual objective physical world than your dreams do; what if it just feels more real?”

“Oh,” said Stephanie. “I hadn’t thought of that.”

The demon caught Stephanie a driving blow to the back and she shot forwards, collapsing in a heap on the ground some distance away. Her body thrummed with pain. As she gritted her teeth and pushed herself to her feet, she could hear the demon running up behind her.

“I suppose,” she said as she spun round and dodged another punch from the demon, “that I can’t really prove in any way that reality isn’t an illusion.” She dodged another. “But as long as it’s the sensory experience that consistently presents itself to me…” Duck. “…it’s the best I have to work with…” Sidestep. “…and I have to assume and trust that it’s as ‘real’ as I’m going to get for the time being…” Jump. “…since all other speculation and conjeecture is a pointless, navel-gazing, over-introverted, collosal waste of time!” With this she brought the hammer round and up hard, smacking the evil demon squarely in the face. “Take that, evil demon of hyperbolic doubt!” she yelled.

“Argh!” cried the demon. “Nooo! You have defeated me!”

Then it exploded in a shower of sparks, its last words coming out just as it did so:

“Continue on to your next challenge!”

Just at that very moment…

 

…Stephanie woke up.

She looked about briefly in confusion before getting her bearings. She must have fallen asleep on the train. What a weird dream she had been having. Thank goodness it was over now. She was glad to be out of it; it had been so strange and random. She must have nodded off because she had been working so hard lately. Luckily, she had been woken up by the announcement of her tube stop.

Quick as a flash, she stood up and left the train. She made a mental note to go to bed earlier tomorrow night to avoid falling asleep and having bizarre dreams like this again.

It was only a short walk to the bar where her work colleagues were meeting. Inside, she gave a uniformed girl her coat and surveyed the scene. The bar was roomy and dark, lit only by candles dotted around the room in little jam jars. Very romantic. Modern artworks hung on the walls, illuminated by the soft candlelight, and tables filled the room in front of the bar area, most with customers already seated at them. And there, over at the far end, were her work colleagues, standing around conversing, drinks in hand. There was Trish, the brunette in a floor length black dress that didn’t suit her at all. Rob, in tieless shirt he had probably had on at work too, fidgeting with the straw of his cocktail. Steve, Amanda, Courtney, Geoff; they were all there. Stephanie took a deep breath and strode over to them. This was her night, she reminded herself. She was a strong, sexy, sassy, brainy, independent woman. No one was going to stand in her way.

She greeted her colleagues with a smile, radiating warmth and personality. She swapped some pleasantries with them. She had this. This was going to be her night. But…where was Darren? He must not have arrived yet. She turned around to look for him, and there was–

Veronica. Dressed like a slut, all blonde hair extensions and botoxed lips, practically bursting out of a tiny white tube top that pushed her bosoms up towards her face.

“Oh, hi there, Steph,” said Veronica. On paper it was a perfectly innocent greeting, but Stephanie could hear the malice dripping from every word.

“Hello, Veronica,” she said. “So glad to see you could make it. This should be a fun night, shouldn’t it?”

“Yes. I’ve been looking forward to it for a long time.” At this Veronica leaned in close, making as if to continue walking past Stephanie but drawing near to whisper something in her ear. “I know you have,” she said in ice cold tones, “and if you even think about making any kind of move on Darren tonight, I will take you down. He’s mine. Back down, bitch.”

Veronica moved away, leaving Stephanie with her mouth open and eyebrows raised. She regained her composure as quick as she could. Veronica! How dare she? Who did she think that she was? This time she had gone too far. Stephanie wasn’t going to ‘back down’ so easily as that. Darren was hers for the taking, she knew it. She was the better woman and she was going to have him. She wasn’t about to be intimidated by the threats of this plastic surgery predator. If that was how Veronica was going to play it, Stephanie would show that she could play ball too. She decided to go the bar to get a drink, but before she could do so she heard another voice behind her.

“Hi, Stephanie.”

Stephanie nearly jumped. She turned to look behind her. It was Darren. Fortune was in her favour tonight.

“Darren, hi!” she said, expertly masking her surprise and girlish thrill at seeing him with a dash of nonchalant charm. “So good to see you! How are you doing?”

“I’m well thanks. Sorry I’m a bit late, I’ve just come from the gym.”

“I’ll bet you have.”

“Pardon?”

“Oh, I mean, don’t be silly, you don’t need to apologise for nbeing late!” Stephanie laughed, patting Darren on his enormous bicep.

This is brilliant, she thought. He’s made straight for me. Think fast. Don’t mess this up, Stephanie. You can do this. This is your night. What was next?

“Would you like me to get you a drink?” she asked. “I was just on my way to the bar.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you. I was going to ask if I could get you a drink? I am the man, after all.”

Stephanie giggled. Her voice rose. “Oh, Darren, don’t be so twentieth century! This is a gender-equal age we’re living in now.”

Darren chuckled back at this, and Stephanie felt her face lighting up.

“Alright then,” said Draren. “I’ll have a glass of red wine please.”

“How sophisticated. I’ll be back in one moment.”

“Why, let me accompany you.”

They ambled over to the bar together. This is going so well, Stephanie thought. He hasn’t even said hello to anyone else yet–he’s only spoken to me! And he wants to come to the bar with me! Her intuitions must be right. All the signs were there. She must not mess this up. What next?

She ordered their drinks at the bar. “Do you go to the gym often?” she asked Darren.

“Oh, no, only about five times a week. Just enough to keep me in shape. How was work today?”

“Yeah, good, thank you. Everyone’s behaving themselves at the moment, anyway, so I can’t complain.” She handed Darren his drink and they clinked glasses. “Cheers.” She looked deep into his dreamy blue eyes.

“To tonight,” he said, and the blue glinted.

“To tonight,” she echoed, a hot blush rising in her cheeks.

“Darren! Is that you?”

Oh no. Veronica. She had spotted them.

Veronica marched right up them and gave Darren a kiss on each cheek, wobbling her chest in front of him in the process like some kind of butcher putting meat on display to potential customers.

“Hello, Veronica,” said Darren, smiling. What, a positive reaction? Even after the moment they had just shared together? This wasn’t good. Not good at all.

“I’m so pleased that you could come,” said Veronica. “It’s such a great place, isn’t it?” She pivoted on her foot and gestured with her arm, which went straight into Stephanie’s glass, knocking her wine all over her and down her dress.

“Ahhh!” exclaimed Stephanie in a highly unladylike way. The wine was a darker colour than even the poppy red of her dress and it went all over it, staining it horribly.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, Steph!” said Veronica. “Clumsy me! Here, let me help you clear that up!”

“No. no, thanks!” said Stephanie. “It’s ok, I’ll sort it out myself.” Stephanie shot a look of what she hoped was utter hatred at Veronica. That scheming witch. What was she going to do now? She needed to see how Darren would react. Everything would hinge on that. She looked at Darren, who said…

 

…“What is the meaning and purpose of your existence?”

Stephanie was admittedly slightly taken aback by this question. For the second time that day, something out of the ordinary for her boring, facile world was happening and she was being invited to contemplate something more significant than merely what her puny mind was used to. It didn’t have anything to do with wine, or romance, or the tedious love triangle she was enmeshed in.

“Excuse me, Darren?” she said.

Just then a gigantic tank crashed into the restaurant/bar, whatever it was, shattering the windows on the way in and crushing several of the customers underneath its caterpillar tracks, instantly killing them. Since they were background dressing devoid of personalities, nobody cared.

Everyone screamed. Police cars followed close behind the tank, sirens blaring, and several men in black balaclavas jumped out of the tank and started firing guns at them.

Stephanie and Darren hit the deck, taking cover from the gunfight.

“What I mean is,” said Darren, answering her question, “have you considered what the actual point of your life is, why you exist at all, or are you just drifting through it without giving that any thought?”

“Well, um, er, I mean, uh…” said Stephanie eloquently, gunfire sounding overhead.

“Life is so fragile and brief after all, we can’t afford not to reflect on what it’s meaning might be. Take those people who have just been killed by that tank, for example. Their existences have just been snuffed out, so quickly, in an instant, without warning. It could happen to any one of us, at any time. Life is too short not to spend at least some of it figuring out if any of it really means anything.”

Stephanie’s breath had been taken away. So Darren wasn’t just a superficial, poorly-executed two dimensional stereotype after all! He actually had some depth!

“Why are you saying this to me, Darren?”

The police had gotten out of their cars now and were returning fire on the balaclava-clad men from their own handguns. Bullets were whizzing past above them. There were sounds of glasses shattering. Carnage.

“I’m presenting you with your second philosophical challenge,” said Darren. “Do you remember your dream on the train?”

“How do you know about that?”

“It wasn’t a dream. Well, actually, it was, but that’s the point: You successfully overcame the first epistemological challenge to come up with a working solution to the problem of whether or not the world is an illusion, distinguishing dream for reality. Congratulations! Now for the second challenge: You must come up with a working answer to the ethical question: What is the purpose of life?”

From her place lying on her front, hands held over her head to brace it and shelter her from the stray falling glass and debris, Stephanie looked with new respect at Darren.

“How do you know all this?” she asked. “How did you know about my dream on the train?”

“Because I’m a secret agent for MI5 and also a member of their crack philosophical psychonauts division. In fact, my name isn’t Darren at all. Darren’s a stupid name. It’s actually Jack. Jack’s a good manly name for a secret agent. I specialise in solving problems to do with mind-body dualism and teleological metaphysics, as well as advanced in-field counter-terrorism combat. Speaking of which…”

Darren/Jack jumped up from his own place on the floor, ran over to one of the men who had gotten out of the tank who was looking in the other direction and swept his legs from underneath him with a low kick. He grabbed the man’s gun in mid-air, shot him in the head, then shot the next nearest terrorist in the chest and grabbed his gun, all in one fluid movement.

“Here, catch,” he said to Stephanie. She caught the second gun. “So that’s your mission: come up with a purpose for your life. Are you going to accept it?”

As another terrorist rounded on Darren/Jack, raising his weapon, Stephanie unloaded a couple of rounds into him, astonishing herself as her own killer instincts kicked in.

“I gave up wondering if there was a purpose to life a long time ago,” she said as she turned back to Darren-Jack. “I mean, who says that life has to have meaning? Why bother wasting a load of time agonising over whether it has any meaning or not and just get on with living it, enjoying it?”

Darren-Jack picked up a live grenade that had been thrown at them from behind the crashed tank, threw it back in the direction it had come, then grabbed Stephanie, diving to the floor with her again to get clear of the explosion.

“Not good enough,” he said. “Everyone works with some kind of functional purpose to their lives. It’s intellectually insincere not to examine it. As Socrates said, ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’” He picked her up again and they ran over to join the police, ducking and dodging on the way.

“Oh,” said Stephanie with her usual level of articulacy. “Well I suppose that’s my answer then: Seeing as I don’t think there’s any grander or higher purpose or meaning to life, I try to enjoy my life as best I can, and I generally try to be a good person. That’s the purpose of life, from my perspective: to enjoy my life as much as I can and to be a good person.”

For the third time that evening, Jack-Darren took Stephanie in his arms. He threw himself into her, knocking her once more to the ground in order to save her from being shot by one of the terrorists who had been keeping his head low. He rolled as they landed, took Stephanie’s gun from her, and came up firing both it and his own at the same time. The black-clad man fell. “That’s not good enough either,” said Jack-D. “Who’s to say there’s any meaning behind your own selfish pleasure and ‘being’ a good person at all? Why choose those aims instead of any other possible aims? They just happen to be what you’ve settled upon, but they are completely arbitrary. They could just be what you’re pre-programmed to aim for by evolution. Who’s to say that they have any inherent worth, purpose or meaning of their own?”

Stephanie took her gun back from Jack. “Well, there you go then. My working hypothesis is that there is no meaning to life, whatever you choose to do is completely arbitrary, with regards to ‘purpose’, so you might as well just pick something and get on with it. Try to infuse it with as much ‘purposive’ character as you can. Life’s purpose is what you make it to be.”

“Now you’re talking,” said Jack. “That’ll do as a provisional, existential answer until something better comes along. It’s not very satisfying, but at least it’s honest.

Just at that moment, all of a sudden…

 

…it went completely quiet. Thankfully, the horrible fighting and gunfire had all died down now, and normality returned. They had been so out of place at this work party in a pretty London bar. Stephanie had been shocked, but then cautiously pleased, to learn that Darren (for that was his proper name, the first name she had known him by) was a secret agent. She supposed that it made sense, now that she thought about it: His robust physique, his intelligence, his wit, his charm. The only thing that didn’t quite fit into place was why he had been working for her company’s HR department, but she would figure that out later. She was less sure about his philosophical jabberings, which had come completely out of nowhere, like the terrorist attack, but thankfully those had now stopped too.

The gunfire had died down because the police had now dealt with all the terrorists and rounded them all up. The last one had his head pushed down inside a police car and was driven away. What a relief.

Unfortunately there was no natural way to return to the normality of the party from before, now that this event had happened from so out of the blue. Stephanie wondered if this episode, too, had all been a dream and if she had fallen asleep while trying to sort out the red wine stain on her dress, but concluded this was too improbable to have happened twice in one day. Amazingly, the terrorist attack had really happened. Her work colleagues and the other surviving customers of the bar began to pick themselves up and the dust themselves down, each beginning to process the evening’s events in the context of their own rich inner lives and well rounded personalities.

Luckily nobody had been killed or suffered any serious harm. Some of the police had stayed behind and, joined by some paramedics, were passing out blankets to people and advising them about what to do and how to look after themselves now that they had witnessed this terrible incident. They were also taking statements for evidence from those who felt they were able to deliver them. A young woman clutched a dressing to her eye while her lips moved frantically, recounting the events of the evening to the constable in front of her. No doubt a news crew would be on their way soon as well, and Stephanie would have a chance to tell the story to the international papers. Darren helped the police, retrieving a blanket from one of the ambulances and coming over to wrap her in it.

“Here you go, Steph,” he said, and Stephanie’s heart did a little flutter as he used her nickname for the first time. He secured the blanket around her shoulders himself and Stephanie imagined his strong arms embracing her, enveloping her, holding her tight. In a stroke of fortune, the blanket covered up the red wine stains on Stephanie’s dress. Darren held two corners of the blanket just under her chin and looked her full in the face. Stephanie wanted to rest her forehead against his. His chiseled features seemed to twinkle in the flashing lights from the ambulances, and his blue eyes shimmered. He looked as though he were about to kiss her on the mouth.

Someone said “Darren, can I have a blanket too?”

It was Veronica. Again!

“Oh, of course, no problem,” said Darren, chivalrous as ever.

Where had she come from? If there was one person Stephanie would want to have been killed in the attack it was Veronica. But no, it was not to be. Of course. That would make things too easy and straightforward and unexciting, and Stephanie would not really wish death even on her own worst enemy, in any case.

Darren went to retrieve another blanket and Veronica edged closer to Stephanie. “What are you playing at?” she said through gritted teeth. “I warned you about Darren. He’s mine. I will make you pay for this, Steph. Back down. You’re outmatched.”

“We’ll see who’s outmatched by whom,” said Stephanie, congratulating herself on her excellent use of grammar. She wasn’t going to let herself be intimidated by this prideful hussy. “Darren’s an intelligent man. He’ll make the right choice.”

Darren returned with a blanket for Veronica and as he drew it around her shoulders she caught one of his hands and drew the blanket around both of them.

“You must be cold as well, Darren!” she said. “Why don’t you share this with me?” She pressed her body up against his and pulled the blanket in tight. Darren’s eyebrows raised, but his body settled no less easily into the shape of Veronica’s curves. A white heat exploded in Stephanie’s guts. What? How dare she? How could she be so brazen?

Darren gave a nervous laugh and then threw a glance sideways at Stephanie. Yes! That must be a sign! He really liked her, not Veronica! Or was it just that he was embarrassed to be approached in such a forward way by another work colleague? The problem was that Stephanie had no real way of knowing, because she hadn’t yet made her own proper move on Darren. And now Veronica had beaten her to it. Curse her own refined sense of modesty and dignified tact!

A lump formed in her throat. Time seemed to slow down. A choice presented itself to her. It was now or never. She could maker her move, or risk losing Darren to Veronica, possibly forever. But it was a huge gamble. If she said something and she was right, and Darren really did like her, she would get happiness, romance, passion, ecstasy and fulfillment. On the other hand, if she said something and she was wrong, and Darren didn’t like her, she would put her heart on the line and have it terribly, brutally broken, her dreams ruined, and she would be horrifically humiliated and made to look like a fool in front of her worst enemy and two people she had to see every day in work to boot. What should she do? Could all of that flirting, those a-bit-longer-than-usual looks and suggestive gestures, over the last few weeks really all have been in her imagination? Could she really have made them all up? Unless she acted now, she might never know.

“Um, by the way Darren…” she heard herself saying. Not the most elegant start. But she couldn’t pull back now. She had committed, she had started saying something. Unless she found something else to mention instead and diverted course… No, it was too late, the next words were already forming on her lips! “I was wondering if you…er…might like to go out on a date with me sometime?”

Nonononononono! That was not how it was meant to come out! She was a sophisticated, independent woman! She was supposed to tease the date invite out of him, or offer it in a much more empowered way, not like a snivelling little teenager approaching her crush for the first time!

But there it was. She had said it. It was out there now. She looked at Darren. His eyes were wide with surprise, no doubt at the oddness of the context and her clumsy solicitation. Veronica had turned bright red and her jaw was clenched shut. Very smoothly, Darren withdrew himself from the clutches of Veronica’s blanket and….

 

…leapt at Stephanie, grabbing her and leaning her over as he caught her. Elated, Stephanie noticed for the first time that his canine teeth were much pointier than most people’s. In fact, they were not teeth at all, but fangs! Lingering over her neck, Darren-Jack leaned in close to Stephanie and said in what she could have sworn was now a Transylvanian accent “Why bother with going ‘out’ for a date, my dear? Why not fly back with me to my castle where we can enjoy a night in in my secret dungeon instead? For you see, I am not actually a dull blue collar HR slave, or a secret agent at all, but rather in fact I am a billionaire megalomaniac triple agent fetishist vampire called Vlad! Mwahahahahaha!”

As she continued to observe the sharpness of his teeth and saw the wild gleam in his eyes, Stephanie felt a powerful stirring in her loins, or wherever it is that girls feel powerful stirrings. She desired very much to be taken and ravaged by him, or something like that. However, at the same time part of her was not so sure. If he was a vampire, what would happen to her if he bit her? Would she turn into a vampire too? And, ‘dungeon’? Really? She wasn’t completely sure whether she liked the sound of that or not. Another choice was now laid out in front of her. Should she risk a night of passion with Darren and the possibility of a continued long term relationship, the fulfillment of her wildest dreams, at the expense of possibly being transfigured into a pointy-toothed, darkness-dwelling, bat-like creature? Or should she play it safe and back off now while her jugular vein and her emotional stability were (just about) still intact? Decisions!

“Ah, it is not so straightforward now, is it my dear?” said Darren/Jack(/Vlad.) “Now that you have me and know the truth about me, you are strangely both attracted to me and confused as to whether you still really want me! You have a choice to make! But this is your third and final philosophical challenge, from the realm of ontology: How do you know if the choices you make are made freely, or if you are predetermined to make them in a certain way? It’s the age old problem of free will versus determinism!”

“…?!” said Stephanie, back to her usual level of erudition.

“Perhaps,” said Jack/Darren/Vlad, “you will choose what to do yourself, or perhaps your genetic makeup, your socio-historical context, even the laws of physics will determine what you are to ‘choose’!”

Stephanie thought about this for a moment, still in Jack/Vlad’s arms. She pondered her predicament. She had a decision about whether to go with Jack-Vlad or not. But was she really free to make it, or was she predetermined to do a certain thing, which she could not avoid? Just as she was about to open her mouth to speak, someone interrupted.

“I’ll make the decision for you,” said Veronica. “Vlad is mine!

Stephanie had forgotten about Veronica, probably because she was such a lifeless, two-dimensional character. Just then, a shaft of moonlight fell into the through the clouds and the remnants of the demolished wall, since it was by now quite late. It just so happened that it was a full moon that night and the light hit Veronica directly. Without warning, she transformed into a humanoid wolf. Because she was…a werewolf! Her face contorted into a lupine muzzle. Her ample bosom, her only real defining feature, when you came down to it, shrank and was overgrown by dark brown fur. Her arm muscles bulged out and ripped her dress.

Wolf-Veronica dove at Stephanie and smacked her out of Vlad’s arms, bitch-slapping her on the face and sending her tumbling to the floor. Then she set upon Vlad, swiping and snapping at him with her claws and teeth. Whether she was trying to copulate with him or to kill him was not clear. Stephanie watched as the two of them became engrossed in a gripping martial-arts contest, each moving with supernatural speed and skill. As Vlad fought, dodging out of the way of Veronica’s advances and throwing his own return blows, he continued to talk to Stephanie.

“What’s it to be then?” he said. “Are you free to make a choice about me or are you determined to act in a certain way?”

Stephanie looked on, flabbergasted out of her mundanely miniscule mind, but after a while managed to say “Well it feels to me like I’m free to make decisions, so I must be free.”

“Ah, but that feeling could merely be an epiphenomenal delusion arising out of the activity of your neural networks! All your actions could be the result of material processes which are subject to naturalistic laws!”

“Oh… I suppose so. I guess there’s no way of proving that I am free; I could just be a robotic slave to the laws of Science…”

“Right! So how are you going to deal with this decision in front of you?

An idea came to Stephanie. “Well, hang on, just because I can’t prove that I have free will doesn’t mean that I don’t! I’m going to assume that I am free until further notice and then set about trying to discover what true freedom is. And for now I’m going to choose not to go with you back to your castle, since you’ve turned out to be a psychotic triple-agent fetishitic vampire called Vlad.”

“Yes, now you’re really talking!” This remark did not come from Darren-Jack-Vlad or Wolf-Veronica, but from someone entirely different. Just a little way away, a multicoloured interdimensional portal had opened up and, to everyone’s astonishment a dashingly handsome man–even more dashing than Darren-Jack-Vlad, who on closer inspection actually seemed to resemble more of a cardboard cut-out than a human being–stepped through it. He had dark hair and was a holding a pen and paper in hand.

“Who are you?” said Stephanie.

“I’m Theodore Buckland,” said the handsome stranger. “I’m one of the co-authors of this dismal tandem short story assignment and I’ve incarnated myself into it in order to set you free from it! I’ve tried to rescue it already by making a concession and throwing in a human-vampire-werewolf love triangle, but it hasn’t worked–it’s still utterly dire! But now that you’ve realised that you need to pursue the meaning of true freedom, I can enter this story and pull you out of it. Come with me through this interdimensional portal to a fictional reality of my own construction where you and I can pursue the answer to the great question of free will and determinism in a gladiatorial last-man-standing fight-to-the-death survival game set in a dystopian meta-world!”

Knowing somehow that it was the right thing to do, Stephanie took the man’s hand and stepped through the portal with him, out of the terrible short story that was her life and into…

 

I’m sorry but I can’t carry on this exercise any longer. My writing partner is a complete idiot and as you can see he keeps butchering our story and taking it off in ridiculous directions. I don’t care how useful this kind of exercise is for developing my writing, I’m not doing it with this guy any more. I don’t even know why he was allowed into this class. I don’t even know why I’m paying so much money for this class. I would like to request a new partner or for my money to be refunded. If I don’t get either of those, I will be suing.

 

WHY SAMURAI JACK IS THE BEST TV SHOW EVER MADE: THE TOP TEN BEST SAMURAI JACK EPISODES EVER (SEASONS 1-4)

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Samurai Jack was a cartoon created by Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Labortory, The Powerpuff Girls) which originally ran for four seasons in 2001- 2004.

It was then cancelled. However, last year in 2016 came the news that a fifth, final season was being made. You cannot imagine my excitement at this. At the time of writing, the final season is currently airing, with one more final ever episode about to drop this Saturday!

Since I’ve recently finished the third round of revisions on a Young Adult fantasy novel, this piece of writing and post is a bit more light-hearted. It’s about why Samurai Jack is my favourite TV show ever.

Okay, maybe it’s not the best TV show ever made, but I needed a clickbait title, and it’s definitely a contender for the best TV cartoon ever made.

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What’s the big deal about Samurai Jack, then?

I was introduced to Samurai Jack as a teenager, I think by my brother and his fervent recommendations, whom as usual I at first ignored (sorry, Simon!). But when I eventually watched the show for myself later, I was spellbound.

I will struggle to communicate how compelling I find Samurai Jack is and how much its symbolism resonates with me.

When I was working as a church outreach worker in primary schools, I once designed a whole series of afterschool clubs based on watching Samurai Jack episodes and discussing possible Christian parallels with them with the kids afterwards. The children who came were en-rapt, and even the naughtiest kids from my most difficult school sat enchanted by the show and were then prepared to discuss possible spiritual connections with it afterwards! Including the non-Christians!

In a similar vein, I once put on a Samurai Jack episode screening night for my friends where we watched a bunch of episodes and then I explained and we discussed possible Biblical links that could be made to aspects of it. Because that’s the sort of weird person that I am… I’ve forced housemates, friends, family members all to endure my obsession with Samurai Jack, but they have all come around to seeing that it is brilliant. And now my wife has to put up with it too, but so has she!

So why exactly is Samurai Jack so good?

Here’s my explanation (similar to what I’ve done with the cult videogame ‘The Way’ in this blog post, which actually has lots of similarities to Samurai Jack too) and then a list of my favourite episodes.

  1. THE SYMBOLISM

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This is my main point. The basic premise of Samurai Jack is that an evil demonic force called Aku appears in feudal Japan. A samurai prince, of unknown name, is given a magic sword and takes on Aku. The samurai defeats Aku, but just at the crucial moment, Aku opens a portal in time and throws the samurai into the distant future.

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When the samurai arrives in the future, he discovers that Aku has taken over the entire world. Some bystanders give him the nickname ‘Jack’, which sticks, and he sets out on a quest somehow to return to the past and undo the future that Aku has created.

This basic premise is probably best explained in the recurrent prologue to every episode of seasons 1-4 in the voice of its lead antagonist (the voice actor for whom sadly passed away):

“Long ago in the distant past, I, Aku, the shape-shifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil, but a foolish samurai warrior stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law. Now the fool seeks to return to the past and undo the future that is Aku.”

Could you ask for a more Christological metanarrative? Well, probably, yes, but it is still a very strong one. From a Christian perspective, what we have here is essentially a Satan figure (the word ‘Aku’ just means ‘evil’ in Japanese), an everyman Christ-figure / monomythic hero (Jack) and an epic quest involving good vs. evil, self-sacrifice and holding to hope in the face of trial, opposition and despair in an alien land.

That’s a perfect grand guiding concept to tell a story rich in symbolism resonant  of spiritual realities (whether you see them as Jungian archetypal aspects of the collective unconscious or, as I do and I believe you should, metaphysical truths accurately described by the Christian worldview).

But it’s not just in terms of its overall narrative that Samurai Jack is rich in symbolism. Also within this overaching story, the smaller, individual short stories it tells are full of more specific symbolism and powerful themes, as I will endeavour to show when I discuss some individual episodes below.

  1. THE ATMOSPHERE

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A trademark motif of focusing in on a bird or another wild creature for a long part of the shot, until it eventually flies or scampers away. Unique sound effects used to portray psychological events. An emphasis on the seasons and weather. Long periods of silence. Still landscapes. Did I mention we are talking about a cartoon here? Samurai Jack has all of these things. It builds tension irresistibly throughout almost every episode, creating a highly immersive atmosphere.

  1. THE ARTWORK

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The drawing and animation in Samurai Jack, although it was still finding its feet in its first season, is beautiful. It employs hand-drawn backgrounds, Japanese-influenced paintbrush stills, and wide shots of nature, and often switches up its art style in a completely non-jarring way between or even within episodes, in keeping with the context and themes. It is a work of art. This is not an exaggeration.

  1. THE ACTION

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Samurai Jack has amazing, intricately choreographed action sequences. Sometimes for an entire episode there is no or very little dialogue! And we still  find ourselves on the edge of our seats for 20 minutes. When it comes to action sequences, in a sense you can do more in a cartoon than you can in live action, because you are only limited by what you can draw and make look realistic on the page. Samurai Jack demonstrates this many times over.

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Having gushed enough about it now, here is a list of my favourite Samurai Jack episodes and a brief explanation of some of what I find to be their theological correspondences, as examples. This is my own list and is purely subjective. There are other best episode lists out there, but I have picked my own favourites (although lots of these overlap with what are on the other best episode lists too). I have stuck to Seasons 1-4 because I am most familiar with those, because not everyone will have seen Season 5 yet, and because Season 5 is more of a single continuous story rather than a series of self-contained short stories.

TOP TEN BEST SAMURAI JACK EPISODES (SEASON 1-4)

10. EPISODES I-III: THE BEGINNING

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Okay, three episodes for the price of one here, but they all fit together as a continuous story as the ‘Premiere Movie’ which introduces the concept of Samurai Jack, so they are essential viewing for any Jack fan or anyone looking into the series. My particular highlight is the extended montage where Jack, having been sent away to do so by his mother, travels the world as he grows up, training and learning in all the different countries he passes through with a network of different rulers his parents are a part of. This offers a lovely showcase of many of the different historical cultures of the world: India, Arabia, Africa, China, England, Russia, Scandinavia, and more. The picture above shows Jack being handed over from his Middle Eastern mentor to his African caretaker. It was this eclectic traveling sequence, celebrating the different cultures of the world, that won over a number of my skeptical housemates to Samurai Jack when I showed it to them!

9. EPISODE VII: JACK AND THE THREE BLIND ARCHERS

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This is the first Samurai Jack episode that is pure poetry: Jack has to fight a group of three blind archers who are incredibly accurate and dangerous because of their magically heightened superhuman hearing. They can also fire off hundreds of arrows a minute as evinced by the opening sequence in which we see them absolutely trash an independent attacking army. In order to overcome them, Jack has to blindfold himself and learn to pay attention to his other senses, Daredevil-style, giving an opportunity for a very impressionistic animation set-piece: Jack focuses in on the sounds and feelings around him until he can concentrate on the sound of just one single shattering snowflake. Then, the climax of this episode happens in almost complete silence! It showcases some important lessons about mindfulness, being present in the moment, and paying attention to our senses. I could talk about how Christianity is compatible with that, but that’s another post (there are books out there — google is your friend).

8. EPISODE XLVIII: JACK VS. AKU

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A late episode next, and one where the title encapsulates the whole story of Samurai Jack. However this episode is a bit different, as the demonic Aku, for one fight only, promises not to use any of his shape-shifting powers or tricks, and for all intents and purposes appears to limit himself to the physiology of a human. The results are predictable (since Aku is intrinsically deceptive) but fascinating. As well as being ominous, arresting and slightly disturbing, this episode is also very funny. It contains many weird little set-pieces, like Aku trying to order pizza on the phone at the start of the episode, and plot twists centered around whether Aku is or isn’t using his powers in the fight. It is an example of Samurai Jack self-parodying itself in a highly amusing way.

7. EPISODE XXVI: JACK’S SHOES

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This is another comic relief episode. In it, Jack’s wooden Japanese shoes are run over and broken by a group of robot bikers and he has to fight them while trying to find some new footwear. The whole episode is worth it just for the appearance of the character whom I will call Hilarious Referee Guy, the proprietor of ‘Foot-Chalet’, who is utterly sincere, endearing, and ridiculous. The bad guys smash up his shop, and he runs out the door, blowing a referee whistle at top volume until he’s blue in the face, and then yells “Foul! Illegal! Stop!” or similar. I crack up every time he comes on.

6. EPISODE XLIV: THE PRINCESS AND THE BOUNTY HUNTERS

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The most gripping Samurai Jack episode, in my opinion. In this one, a group of bounty hunters from different cultures around the world (mirroring the first episode), led by the eponymous princess, devise an elaborate cooperative plot to kill Samurai Jack, each telling their own version of the plan, with a corresponding change in the style of the artwork for each retelling. We’ve got some twin Siamese cats, their plan shown through subtle calligraphic brushstrokes. An aboriginal’s plan shown in the style of cave paintings. An American gentleman’s shown like a grainy old Western. A brutish slavic character’s shown through crude crayon drawings. Amazing. The denoument is the most incredibly choreographed action sequence I’ve seen in any media. I won’t spoil anything, but the bounty hunters all put their plans together into one enormous super-plan, and then lay in wait for the samurai in the snow. There is a looong wait. I mean, Tartakovsky has a good few minutes of silence in there — very bold for a cartoon. And when Jack eventually shows up…well, let’s just say it’s all over much more quickly than you might think. Coolness encapsulated. And it’s all the more cool because you have seen how elaborate the bounty hunters’ plan is beforehand.

5. EPISODE VIII: JACK VS. MAD JACK

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OK, this is where in my particular list of episodes the symbolism begins to get really rich. There is symbolism in the other episodes I have mentioned so far, but it is less pronounced and this is where we really start to get into it. In this episode, Jack’s anger, hatred and selfishness become so out of control that they become externalised and personified as ablack-and-red version of himself that materialses, ‘Mad-Jack’, whom he has to fight. Mad Jack is Samurai Jack’s Id, or his repressions, or his sinful fleshy nature, whatever you want to call it. So what we have in this episode is a dramatisation of Romans 7 versus Romans 8: of the battle between the selfish, purely fleshy nature and the Spirit-led, higher self in a human being. In the form of two samurai having a sword-fight. Awesome. This is basically the phenomenological experience of my psyche expressed using the symbological lexicon of my nerdy teenage self. Of course, the resolution is a bit more Eastern than Christian, but the imagery was powerful to my teenage self and it is powerful to me now.

4. EPISODE XX: JACK AND THE MONKS

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I love this episode so much I only realised later that it was almost certainly a subconscious influence on the first epic fantasy novel I wrote, How Zantheus Fell into the Sky, which starts with a knight trying to climb an insurmountable mountain (and also involves time-travel, of sorts). In this episode, Jack tries to climb an insurmountable mountain, as inspired by three monks whom he meets who are also trying do the same thing, because they believe “truth” is to be found at the top of it. On the climb, Jack faces many horrendous challenges and reaches one of his lowest points, being crushed and defeated by one of the monsters he has to fight on the mountain and ending up lying in a battered and bloody heap. However, still he perseveres. The ending is also very allegorical and evocative, even in Christian terms (though I had a different ending in my novel!): Jack reaches the top of the mountain, but doesn’t necessarily find the ‘truth’ he is looking for. Instead, he sees another, even bigger, mountain, far off in the distance, perhaps symbolising his ongoing heroic quest. You can just hear the barely grammatically correct lyric by 90s UK tween pop band S Club 7 ringing in your ears: “Climb every mountain higher!”

3. EPISODE XIV: JACK LEARNS TO JUMP GOOD

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This episode, the first of season 2, is a fan favourite. When I put in on in front of my naughty after-school club children they were instantly won round to Samurai Jack. Just look at those cute little monkeys. What might be less commonly observed is that this episode is also a perfect visual illustration of Irenaean-type responses to the problem of evil, James 1:12, and so perhaps also Romans 8:28. In other words, of theological material that has to do with the idea that the difficult things in life, while they may be really difficult and horrible, can also sometimes grow us and make us stronger. In the episode, Jack meets a group of monkeys who teach him to jump to miraculous heights. To do this, they train him by strapping a series of rocks and boulders on to his arms, legs and feet (this may be a nod to events in the original Dragonball manga).

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At first Jack can do nothing and is completely weighed down by the rocks Then, over a long period of time, he slowly starts to be able to move through the pain, until eventually one day he is able to walk, then run, then jump normally with the rocks strapped to him. When one day they untie the rocks from him, Jack finds to his delight that he is able to jump miraculously high–almost to fly. He elates, and dances around, soaring incredibly far up using his newfound near-flight power. And there we have it: a perfect visual metaphor for the idea that sometimes God can use the painful and difficult things that happen to us to make us stronger and lead us to a better outcome overall.

2. EPISODE XL: JACK VS. THE NINJA

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The most stylish and aesthetically impressive Samurai Jack episode. In this one Jack has to fight a robotic shinobi, a ninja or warrior of the night, which can hide itself in shadows and darkness. In the climactic sequence of this episode, the art changes to pure black on white (with the odd hint of red) as Jack uses an opposite technique of hiding himself in the light. Really it has to be watched for justice to be done to it. The religious and mythological symbolism of light vs dark is too obvious and primal to spell out here at length.

=2. BONUS ENTRY: EPISODE XLII: SAMURAI VS. SAMURAI

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OK, I accidentally miscounted how many favourite episodes I had listed, so this one can be joint second, with the top one following. In this episode Jack is goaded into a duel by an arrogant, bullying pretender “samurai” who is imitating the institution as part of his own aesthetic choices but has completely missed the point of it. In the process, reluctant to fight properly, Jack teaches the imitator “samurai” about humility, gentleness and discipline. This episode as such contains the immortal line, from Jack to the wannabe Samurai when he is schooling him, “To defeat another you must first defeat yourself.” Compare “whoever loses his life will save it” (Mark 8:35) and “I have died and it is no longer I who live, but Christ in me” (Galatians 2:20).

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As a result this episode highlights some of the many connections between the samurai Bushido code and New Testament Christianity. I became so interested in these points of connection as a teenager (initially because of Samurai Jack) that I pursued them further and bought books to research them further, including the samurai manuals “Hagakure” (the Book of Fallen Leaves) and “The Book of Five Rings”. I really think there are strong parallels, and occasionally I have seen others make them as well. Maybe this will get its own blog post or article someday. Just a taster: “Samurai” means “servant”, and fedual Japenese samurai lived lives of total self-sacrifice and were prepared to die for their masters. The key difference is that Christians also believe in resurrection, and seem to advocate a bit more joy in the process of self-sacrifice and surrender! But there are parallels nonetheless.

1. EPISODE XLIII: THE AKU INFECTION

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And so to my favourite and in my opinion the best ever episode of Samurai Jack. This one returns to the higher self vs. lower self theme of ‘Jack vs. Mad Jack’ (discussed above) but develops it even further. This time, while Jack is fighting with Aku, the demon is sick and ends up accidentally coughing a bit of himself up (gross I know), which Jack inhales. As a result Jack later becomes slowly infected by Aku, until the demon oppresses him, possesses him and completely takes him over, and he has to fight an interior battle to be rid of the infection. This interior battle is portrayed very impressionistically as a visual battle between the dark and light inside Jack’s mind, interspersed with cuts to Jack in the external world talking to himself while he wrestles internally. So here we have Romans 7 vs Romans 8 played out even more vividily, poignantly and arrestingly. It’s sin + evil vs. spirit + goodness, in the heart, mind and body of one person.

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I once had a dream very similar to parts of this episode while I was on a mission trip in Africa, and when I was undergraduate student I once showed it to my best friend in order to try to describe how I felt about a certain issue I was dealing with. And this time, the imagery of the resolution and denouement could actually itself be interpreted in a directly allegorical Christian way. I love it!

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So there we have it: Why Samurai Jack is the best TV show (cartoon) ever made and my top ten (eleven) favourite episodes!

Now go watch it! Buy it when it comes out on DVD! Use it as a starting point to have evangelistic conversations with your friends! 😉

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‘PRINCE, TWINS, DRAGON’ IS NOW AVAILABLE ON AMAZON

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Prince, Twins, Dragon is now available to purchase on Amazon! Just click here!

It can be read on your Kindle or on the Kindle App on your phone. £0.99 while (infinite) stocks last. Please help me get it up the charts! I promise not to post about this again for a while!

SHORT STORY: LOCKE AND CELES [FINAL FANTASY VI FANFICTION]

Something else from the archives, from many years ago: some Final Fantasy VI fanfiction! I should probably revise this sometime, but here it is in all its unadulterated, green glory! Read here or at https://www.wattpad.com/411342998-selected-short-stories-locke-and-celesLocke and Celes

(picture credit to Dani Oliver, check out his awesome sprite art here!)

Locke and Celes

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How Locke met Celes

Locke, a self-proclaimed treasure-hunter (though some would call him little more than a thief) crept carefully through the secret passageway he had found.

It was late evening. Locke was a member of the Returners, a rebel group that were looking to counter the progress of the Empire of Vector, which was slowly making its way across the Northern Continent. It had taken him a lot to get here; he had been working hard in this, the town of South Figaro, to stymie the military efforts of the Empire, raising underground support, sabotaging equipment, and so on. Now he was attempting to affect his escape—and a very dangerous one it was too: He was currently in a secret passageway which he had found out about from a local that led out of the mansion the Imperial soldiers had taken over and were using as their base in the town.

Getting here had been hard enough in itself—he had had to clobber a patrolling cadet over the head, steal his clothes, and then blag his way into the mansion. The secret passageway itself was behind the obligatory bookshelf; a hidden route out of town that the wealthy owner of the mansion had built and himself made use of when the Empire invaded, according to Locke’s informant. He had just got inside and was making his way along slowly in the semi-darkness. Thankfully it was lit by a few candles. He decided to take off his cadet uniform and change back into his normal clothes, as it would only slow him down.

As he was finishing getting changed he heard voices—the Empire must have found the passageway too! He had changed too soon. He pressed himself up against a wall and reached for his sword, but then he realised where the voices were coming from. A little way along from where he was stood there was a door. He shuffled over to it and the voices got louder. He could make one out.

“—what happens to traitors!” it said. An angry male voice, undoubtedly belonging to a soldier.             Locke realised there was a small window of open space in the door. He risked a look through, and nearly gasped. Inside was a stunning blonde woman, dressed in white armour and a white cape, chained to the wall by her hands and feet. She was being mocked by two soldiers. He could have sworn he had seen her somewhere before…and then he remembered where—she was one of the Emperor’s three Generals!

This was confirmed by the next thing the guard said. “So the mighty Celes has fallen! This is what happens when you put a woman in charge!” The two soldiers laughed.

The woman shot them a dignified look of defiance and said “I’ve not fallen as far as those who would use their strength to oppress the weak.”

“Quiet!” said the second guard. “Did we give you permission to speak?”

“Don’t you know?” The woman continued undeterred. “Kefka’s planning to poison every last man, woman and child in the kingdom of Doma. That’s an atrocity.”

“Shaddup!” The first guard slapped her around the face. The woman made no noise. In fact her gaze only intensified. Locke thought he saw a flicker in her eyes where she might have noticed him, but if she did she did not show it. Maybe she did not want to alert the guards to his presence.

“Run that mouth while you still can, General,” said the guard. Your execution’s tomorrow. Keep a close watch on her.” He nodded to his comrade.

“Yessir!” said the soldier, standing to attention. The first guard turned, and Locke ducked away from the window just in time not to be seen by him. He held his breath and remained perfectly still as the door opened towards him, stopping inches away from his face, obscuring him. Locke clutched the hilt of his blade at his side.

The door shut, and to his immense relief, the guard went down the corridor in the other direction, away from him. Locke crouched down and followed him, as quietly as he could, at a distance. At the end of the passageway was a door. Locke let the soldier go through it, then waited in silence for a few moments, before going through himself.

The room behind was large, full of clutter, just as poorly lit and, again to his relief, empty. There was a set of stairs in the corner, which, according to his informant, led to another set of passageways and, eventually, the outside world. Locke started to mount them, then stopped. Something held him back.

He looked an old grandfather clock that was stood amongst the mess that filled the room. It was ten o’clock. Locke thought for a moment. Then, he found a small gap between an old armchair and an overturned wardrobe, and lay down on the ground, making sure he was still in view of the grandfather clock.

He waited.

*

Three o’clock in the morning. Locke looked up from his five-hour long semi-slumber, clicked his tongue against the roof his mouth a few times, and then got to his feet. He prized himself on his ability to wake himself up whenever he wanted. It came in useful in his profession.

Thankfully, no-one had come in to the cluttered room so far during the night. He went back out by the door through which he had come in and crept back down the mansion’s secret passageway. He put his face to the door window and smiled. Just as he thought.

The second guard sat slumped on a chair, snoring loudly. The woman was asleep too, her head bowed as she hung chained to the wall. It looked very uncomfortable.

Locke opened the door as quietly as he could manage. He went stiff as metal when it creaked, but nobody woke.

He tip-toed over to the sleeping guard. He took out his sword, and thumped the man on the back of the head with the hilt. The man fell to the floor and sank even further into unconsciousness.

The woman looked up with an intake of breath and opened her eyes.

“And you are…?” was the first thing she said to him.

“I’m Locke.” said Locke. “I’m with the Returners.”

“You’re a Returner…?”

“Yes.”

“I’m…or at least I was…General Celes. Now I’m nothing but a traitor…”

As she was saying this, Locke retrieved the keys from the floored guard’s belt. He walked over to Celes and started to remove her bindings, one by one.

“What are you doing?” she said.

“Well,” said Locke, “we had better get going!”

“You’d take me with you?” said Celes, as Locke finished freeing her. She rubbed her wrists. “No…” She shook her head. “I appreciate it but…even if you got me out, you would never be able to protect me. I’m better off waiting here for the executioner. At least that way I’ll keep my pride.”

“I’ll protect you,” said Locke.

Celes looked at him.

“Trust me! You’ll be fine.” He put a hand on her arm. “Come on, let’s go!”

He turned and made for the door.

Celes paused for a moment, then followed him out.

“Why are you helping me?” she said to Locke.

“Let’s just say you remind me of someone. What’s it matter anyway? I’m helping you because I want to.”

They passed through the cluttered room, up the stairs, and through the next door. Behind it were more corridors, now made of stone, darker and colder. Before long they came to a junction. Locke couldn’t remember the directions he had been given for this part of the escape.

“Left or right?” he said.

“I don’t know!” said Celes. “What sort of rescuer are you?”

“Left,” guessed Locke.

With some hesitation, Celes went after him. They made a few more guesses at the next set of turns, but Locke had no idea where he was going.

Just then a shout rang out. “Jailbreak! Sound the alarm!”

His heart sank. The guard had woken up, or someone else had discovered what had happened. They started running full pelt, taking more turns at random. Some lights appeared ahead of them, and there wasmore shouting.

“Here, take this,” he said to Celes, handing her a dagger. He drew his sword.

And then the soldiers were upon them. Five of them, including the oaf Locke had subdued earlier. He still had the Fireblade that Edgar had given him, and it lit up red with its own fierce light. He blocked the first guard’s blow, then parried another. It was quite easy to hold off the soldiers in the narrow corridor, but he struggled to find an opening to counterattack. Just then he heard a shout from behind him.

“Locke! Get out of the way!”

Surprised, he sprang back and to one side just in time to avoid being hit by a blast of freezing cold air, snow and shards of ice. The blast smashed into the soldiers and threw them back along the corridor, knocking them to the floor, there weapons and bits of their armour frozen solid.

Locke’s mouth dropped open. “How did you…?”

“No time to dawdle!” yelled Celes. “Come on!” she grabbed his hand and started running back down the corridor.

“Hey, who’s rescuing who here?” protested Locke.

“You’re doing great,” said Celes. “The soldiers came from over there, which means we should go this way…”

She took a few more turns, and before they knew it they were climbing a new set of stairs. At the top of these, they came to a trap door in the ceiling. Locke hit it with his scabbard. It opened and they felt the cool of the air outside. Locke clambered up, then helped Celes up too. The trap door shut behind them with a satisfying thud.

They sat down and caught their breath for a moment. They were in the grasslands just outside South Figaro.

After a while, Locke said “Celes, how did you do that thing to those soldiers back there?”

“I’m a Magitek Knight.” said Celes. “I was infused with magicite when I was a child. One of Emperor Gestahl’s lead scientists, Cid, raised me as his own. I was trained as the Emperor’s weapon all my life. As you saw, my own native magic is of the icy variety.”

“Wow, so that was magic,” marveled Locke.

He looked at Celes. The sun was just beginning to dawn, and it illuminated her crystal-cut face and long, blonde hair with a golden aura. She was beautiful.

‘PRINCE, TWINS, DRAGON’ NOW AVAILABLE TO PRE-ORDER ON KINDLE

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You can now pre-order ‘Prince, Twins, Dragon’ from Amazon if you want to read it on Kindle, or the Kindle App, for £0.99

YA fantasy mash-up of the odd element of The Hunger Games, various videogame tropes, and Narnia.

It’s also going to literary agents, but the chances there are always very slim, and in this day and age electronic self-publication doesn’t reduce the chances of paper publication. It can even help it.

On with the next project, on with more reading, learning about writing, writing and revising (all in spare time of course)!

SHORT STORY: MARBLES

I’ve started posting some old short stories once a week or so on wattpad. The latest one is a romantic fairytale(!) called ‘Marbles’, written a long time ago… You can read it below or at https://www.wattpad.com/408094531-selected-short-stories-marbles

Marbles

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Once upon a time there lived an old Glassblower who had a special hobby of making marbles.

Each day after he had finished his work creating different kinds of glassware to sell in his shop or to fit the orders placed by his customers, he would devote a small amount of time to his marble making. It was his particular way of relaxing after a busy day and he used up all the bits of leftover glass from his glassblowing to make them.

He made marbles of all different kinds and colours; some pale and translucent so you could see through them easily, others bold and opaque so they were difficult to see through. He made bright marbles with dark twists, black marbles with bits of white dotted in them to look like stars, fire marbles that looked like they might burn you if you picked them up, ice marbles that looked like they’d freeze you, rainbow marbles into which he packed in as many different colours as he could manage, and many others besides. He made storm marbles with lightning streaks, turtle shell marbles of green and yellow, pearl marbles that were white all the way through, onion marbles with different layers, bumblebee marbles with black and yellow stripes, mystery marbles with glazed outsides but invisible patterns hidden inside—you name it, he made it.

And what do you think the Glassblower did with all these wonderful marbles that he made? Do you think he sold them for a special price next to all the other glass in his shop? No, he gave them away for free! He gave them to his family and friends as presents, and sometimes even to complete strangers on the street, usually children.

One such boy who received a marble from the Glassblower was Ivan. One day Ivan was just walking along the street to his friend’s house and the old Glassblower marched straight up to him and offered him the marble. It was easy to see why he had singled the boy out, for he was himself carrying his own netted bag of marbles. He was on his way to his friend’s to play with them.

“Hello,” said the Glassbower. “Would you like this marble?”

“No thank you,” said Ivan. “My parents told me never to take things from strangers.”

“Oh,” said the Glassblower, “well in that case, I’ll just leave it over here on the pavement and you can pick it up if you want to, when I go…”

Ivan thought for a moment. “Why are you giving it to me?”

“I’m a Glassblower. I make them for a hobby, and I enjoy giving them to people for free. I saw that you were carrying a bag of marbles, and I thought to myself, ‘Ah, that young man would probably like to receive one of my special marbles as a gift.’ So here I am.”

“Alright then,” said Ivan. He could see no reason to refuse and the old Glassblower didn’t look very dangerous. “Thank you.”

He put out his hand and the Glassblower placed the marble ceremoniously in it. “Take care of that one,” he said, withdrawing his empty hand. “It’s very special indeed.”

Before he could turn to leave Ivan said “Special? Why is it special?”

The Glassblower smiled. “Well, of course, every marble is special. But that one is particularly special, for you.”

“Why?”

“It contains the light of the eyes of someone who is also…particularly special.”

“What do you mean?” asked Ivan.

“Well, you see, everyone’s eyes have their own kind of light. The eyes are the light of the body, and everyone’s eyes are unique. They all have their own special colours and patterns, just like marbles. And no two pairs of eyes are the same. But, it just so happens that sometimes, by sheer luck, or it could be fate, I make a marble that perfectly matches the colours and patterns of somebody’s eyes. And this is just one such marble!”

“Whose eyes does it match?”

“Oh, I have no idea! But they must be very special indeed to have eyes like that. Well, nice to meet you. I had best be off.”                                                                                                                                  And with that the Glassblower turned and left Ivan, who was very confused, standing in the street holding his new marble. He held it up to his eyes and looked at it. Inside it was a sort of pale but bright blue colour, mixed with what looked like crystals, little flecks of snow that seemed to be woven like thread in and out of the blue, which got darker towards the edges of the marble, ending in a deep blue ring. It was beautiful. Ivan wondered who the person who had eyes like that was and what they were like. He vowed there and then that one day he would find them, slipped the marble into his bag, and went on his way.

When his friend Fyodor asked him why all of a sudden he was insisting on picking up every one of his marbles and examining them very closely, and why when they greeted each other he spent a longer time than was comfortable looking him in the eyes, Ivan told him about his strange encounter with the Glassblower.

“What an odd man,” said Fyodor. But he hadn’t really been interested in the story and was more eager to get going with their game of marbles. “Now, come on, let’s play!” He didn’t even ask to see the marble the old man had given to Ivan. So they carried on with their game, now with Ivan paying proper attention.

But the meeting had affected Ivan. He took special care of his crystal-blue marble, and made sure that he never lost it in a game. And this was easy, because he discovered that when he played with it, he always won! It seemed that whenever he used his special marble, he was more accurate and even played more tactically, and his friends started to get annoyed that he was winning all of their marbles from them. He became so fond of his blue and white marble that he even gave it a name, christening it Snowdrop. Ivan was a clever boy, so he made sure he that he didn’t use Snowdrop in every game of marbles he played, so that he would lose some of them. He only used Snowdrop when he really wanted to win a match or if there was another marble that he particularly liked and wanted to win from someone. Luckily, none of his friends cottoned on to his secret weapon.

Another interesting habit that Ivan developed after his meeting with the Glassblower was that when he met someone for the first time he stared them straight in the eyes for just long enough to make out their colours properly, which made for some unsettling first impressions. He also did this at least once with all of the people he already knew, including his family, his friends and his schoolteachers. Some began to think he was himself a bit odd for this, but he didn’t let that bother him.

Can you guess what he was looking for? That’s right, he was looking for the person whose eyes matched his Snowdrop marble. But no matter where he looked, no matter how intently he gazed, he never found them. Nobody’s eyes quite matched that combination of blues with hidden snow crystal threads. After a while he started to wonder if the Glassblower had been telling the truth.

One day he gave up looking altogether, and started looking instead for another item that might prove the Glassblower’s words to be true—a marble that matched the colour of his own eyes, which were green with a red-brown star exploding out of the centre. If the Glassblower had been telling the truth, then somewhere out there was a marble that contained exactly the same colours as his own eyes. But again, though he came close once or twice, no marble that he could find or win amongst all his friends and all the children at school matched the colour of his own eyes, and Ivan decided that the Glassblower must have been misleading him. No marble he could find held the light of his own eyes, and nobody he met had in their eyes the light of Snowdrop.

Eventually, Ivan grew up, and though he lost his habit of searching for marbles, he retained his habit of looking into people’s eyes. He stopped playing marbles as well. Until one day.

One evening in February, he was at a dinner party at a friend’s house. In fact it was being thrown by the grown-up Fyodor. There were a good deal of guests seated around a long, wooden table in the illustrious dining room, and one of them had gotten his attention. This was a woman by the name of Katerina, who was sitting diagonally across for him. She had long blonde hair and was very beautiful, her skin the pale colour of ivory, and with a tall, dignified neck. Ivan found that she fascinated him, for not only was she very beautiful but she spoke with eloquent dignity, and furrowed her brow in between conversation, betraying a wealth of thoughts going on behind it. For most of the meal, Ivan did not talk directly to her, but rather to the group around them, trying to be as entertaining and funny, not to mention as clever and handsome, as he could manage. But towards the end of the meal he plucked up his courage and tried talking directly to Katerina. To his surprise, she was quite open with him, and talked enthusiastically. Somehow in the course of their discussion they got onto the subject of their childhoods and Katerina mentioned how she had loved playing with marbles.

At this Ivan felt his heart miss a beat. “Marbles?” he said. Then something moved him to add “We should have a game!”

“Oh, that would be such fun!” encouraged Katerina.

“Well, let’s do it then!”

Ivan motioned and got Fyodor’s attention, and asked him if he had any marbles anywhere in his house.

“Marbles? Probably, somewhere. But whatever do you want them for, Ivan?”

“Why, to play, of course.”

Fyodor looked a bit suspicious, but excused himself and went to look for his marbles nonetheless. He found them, and handed them to Ivan.

When the meal had finished, Ivan explained what he was doing and went into the drawing room to set up the game of marbles with Katerina. The rest of the guests followed them, amused to watch what was going on.

“Here you go, you should take half,” said Ivan, offering Fyodor’s bag of marbles to Katerina.

“Oh, no thank you,” she said, “I have my own.” She took a small netted bag of them out of a pocket in her dress, and blushed. “Do you think I’m silly?”

“Oh, not at all!” said Ivan, and he meant it. Without anyone seeing, he withdrew Snowdrop from his pocket and slipped her—for he had decided some time ago that Snowdrop was a ‘her’—into his own bag. “What game shall it be, then?”

“Bunny hole,” said Katerina, ever prepared. She took out a short piece of string and arranged it in a small circle in the middle of the drawing room floor. This was the ‘bunny hole’. The object of this game was to flick your marble into the circle, after which you could then fire it at your opponent’s marbles. If you hit an opponent’s marble twice, you then had one chance to ‘run away’ before you could attempt ‘the kill’—the final contact shot which meant you got to keep the other player’s marble. If, however, you hit the other player’s marble before you had been to ‘visit’ the bunny hole, or if you hit one of your own marbles, this was known as a ‘kiss’, and you had to withdraw that marble from play until your next turn.

Ivan and Katerina arranged their marbles around the bunny hole by firing them one at a time towards it. As Katerina fired her last marble, Ivan noticed something about it. It was green, with a red-brown star exploding out of the middle. Could this be the marble he had searched for years as a child, the marble that contained the light of his own eyes? There was only one way to find out. He needed to take a closer look at it. He determined that he must win that marble.

“We’re playing for keeps, right?” he said.

“Of course,” said Katerina.

“Then let’s begin.”

Katerina had the marble that had landed closest to the bunny hole, which just happened to be the very marble that Ivan had noticed, so she withdrew it and began her turn. She shot it with expert skill straight back into the bunny hole and then began her attack on Ivan’s marbles. To his dismay, she set about systematically assassinating most of his marbles with it. The onlookers clapped.

“I never lose with this marble,” said Katerina. “I call it Fireflower.”

Ivan was dumbfounded. Soon Katerina was down to one of his marbles. She was extremely talented. It looked like she was going to win the match in one turn—which in his schooldays would have been a great humiliation for Ivan. He did not feel much better now. Except that his last marble was none other than—who else? Snowdrop.

His face dropped when Katerina made her first contact hit on Snowdrop. He looked on in horror and awe as she contacted with the second. His whole body tensed. He did not know whether he could bear to part with Snowdrop. How could he be about to lose her? How had Katerina got so good at playing marbles?

Then, to his utmost relief, Katerina missed her ‘kill’ shot.

“Whoops,” she said as she knocked her marble much further across the room than she had meant to, underneath an armchair and over to where the guests were standing. They fanned out to accommodate it. “Oh well,” she said. “I thought I was going to do it all in one go. Never mind.” She smiled. “I’m miles away from you now, you’ll never be able to get me. It’s only a matter of time.”

Ivan made no reply. Instead, he knelt solemnly by Snowdrop. Katerina had won all of his marbles off of him, so now he was going to return the favour. The guests clapped in turn for him as he sent Snowdrop to the bunny hole again and again, winning all of Katerina’s marbles on the way, almost as fast as she had dealt with his. Eventually only Fireflower was left. But that was the only marble of hers that he really wanted.

“He’s too far away for you to hit him,” said Katerina, standing over her lone remaining marble. “You might as well give up now.”

“He?” said Ivan.

“Yes…” Katerina blushed. “I decided when I was a child that Fireflower was a ‘he’…”

Ivan aimed. Snowdrop ricocheted off a wall, then a chair leg, and came slowly to a rest…next to Fireflower. This got an especially loud clap.

“No…” murmured Katerina, open mouthed.

Ivan walked over to the two marbles, got down on one knee, then flicked Snowdrop gently into Fireflower once, twice more. He had made the kill, and without even a single kiss.

“Well done,” said Katerina, more than a little disappointed. She extended her hand.

Ivan picked up Snowdrop, stood up to shake her hand, and looked straight into the light of his favourite marble.

‘PRINCE, TWINS, DRAGON’ NOW COMPLETE!

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You can now read the whole of my YA fantasy novel ‘Prince, Twins, Dragon’ for free either on wattpad or at Inkitt (click the links)! Enjoy!

‘PRINCE, TWINS, DRAGON’ CHAPTER THREE: RECRUITING

Whoops, I forgot to post this chapter on this blog. In case anyone is following it here or reading in their emails/feeds, here it is. This is the last chapter of this I will post on this blog.

If you are interested in reading more of Prince, Twins, Dragon, I am currently putting up a chapter a week at https://www.wattpad.com/story/96454834-prince-twins-dragon At the time of posting I’m currently up to Chapter Five there. Enjoy!

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Chapter Three: Recruiting

The boy in the scruffy clothes was still talking to Jake.

“Now look here, mister—well, you’re not really a ‘mister’, are you? You’re only a boy really–now look here mister boy, I don’t know how you got yourself down there and all tangled up in the river weeds, but I rescued you, you see, and fair’s fair: I think I deserve some kind of reward. It’s the least you could do, don’t you think, given the circumstances? So? Well…?”

“What?” said Jake. “Oh, I’m sorry, I wasn’t listening…” He was still trying to take in his new surroundings.

“I said: I deserve some kind of reward for rescuing you, don’t you think? You look like a wealthy sort of gentlemen,” said the boy, eying up Jake’s school uniform blazer and shirt, “why not help a fellow out for a good deed?”

“Oh, right,” said Jake. “Um, ok then, let’s see what I’ve got…”

He fished around in his wet pockets for something he could give the boy.

“Sorry, I spent all my cash on sweets before the trip. All I’ve got on me is my phone.”

“Your what? Give it here, let me see.”

Jake took out his phone. He had just noticed that the boy was wearing a short knife, which must have been what he used to cut the weeds. He wondered about dialing 999. But his phone, which was soaking wet, appeared to have no reception here.

“What is that?” said the boy as he snatched his phone off him.

“Don’t you know what a phone is?” said Jake. Even though he had just almost died and was totally lost in a strange, unknown land, his rebellious instinct kicked in and he started showing off to the boy. “It’s a device for making calls and sending texts to people. You can also get social media on it and play games.” That was mostly what he used his phone for, anyway. He touched some buttons for the boy to show him. “Look, here’s my high-score on Tetris.” He was really showing off now, but he didn’t want to get the boy too interested in his phone. After all, it was his only lifeline to connect him back to the outside world.

The boy inspected the phone, held up to the light, and fiddled with some buttons, as if he had really never seen one before. Then he said, “Useless,” and threw it over his shoulder, back into the river.

Hey!” said Jake. He very nearly dived in to get it back, but he stopped himself, remembering the ordeal that he had only just survived. “What did you do that for?”

“It’s just a stupid shiny little brick,” said the boy. “No-one would give me any money for it. That, and I wanted to see if you jumped in after it. You didn’t, so it can’t be that valuable, can it?”

“I didn’t jump in after it because I didn’t want to nearly drown again, not because it’s not valuable!”

“Oh, well, that’s your fault then. It’s probably sunk to the bottom and gotten lost by now, anyway.”

“You idiot!” said Jake, his anger getting the better of both his fear and his politeness.

“Sorry mate. So, you don’t have any money you’re willing to give me for rescuing you, then?”

“No! I don’t know where I am and I don’t have any money!”

Before Jake knew what was happening, the boy was knocking him over and pinning him to the ground. He felt a knife being held to his throat.

“Are you sure about that?” said the boy.

Jake tried to stop his adam’s apple from wobbling. He looked around at the people passing by on the roads. No one seemed to notice or care what was happening to him. They seemed to be ignoring them as a couple street urchins having a scuffle.

“I’m telling you, I really don’t have any money, I swear!” said Jake.

“We’ll see about that,” said the boy. “He rifled through Jake’s pockets, keeping him pinned to ground. When he didn’t find anything, his face dropped.

“You really don’t have any money,” he said. “Well…you seem to be in a bit of a mess, don’t you?”

Jake stood up as the boy let him, then looked down at his wet feet. He was loathe to admit it, but he was in a bit of a mess.

“Well, it was nice meeting you,” said the boy, and walked off.

Jake was too relieved to care or to protest. He took a while to get his bearings and work out what the best thing was to do next. Once he had decided, he tried approaching one of the weird passers-by dressed in the odd medieval clothes and asking them where he was.

“Excuse me,” he said to a slightly younger looking man, “but I’m lost and I don’t know where I am. Do you think you could help me find a way to call my Mum?”

The man just ignored him, and carried on walking by. He didn’t even stop to listen or dignify him with a response. Jake tried two more men, and three women, and got nowhere. Everyone treated him the same way. They didn’t so much as glance at him.

“You really don’t know where you are, do you?”

Jake jumped. The boy who had pulled him out of the river earlier was standing at his side. Apparently he had been watching him try to talk to the strangers and get nowhere.

“Tell you what,” said the boy, appearing to make some kind of decision, “why don’t you come with me? I want to introduce you to some friends of mine.”

Jake thought about his options. As far as he could see, he didn’t have any. This boy had just tried to mug him, but he decided he might as well go with him while he thought about what he should do next, seeing as the people in this backward place were so unfriendly and unhelpful.

“Alright then…” he said. “But no more trying to take money that I don’t have off me. Ok?”

“Great! Follow me,” said the boy.

The boy led him over some of the network of bridges that were built over the rivers and into a maze of streets. After some time, he turned into an especially run-down looking alleyway, walked a way down it, and lifted a large, red, hanging cloth that was hung up on one side of it.

“After you,” he said.

Jake looked at the boy, and then took a cautious step under the cloth.

Beyond it, in a dark, secluded, space, a ring of about ten more boys looked up at him, glowering.

All of them had knives.

“Who’s this?” said one of the ten or so boys, reaching for his knife.

“A trespasser, that’s who!” said another of them.

“What you doing bringing outsiders in here, To’phoro?” said another.

“Wait—” said the boy who had brought Jake here, apparently called To’phoro. But before he could finish his sentence, one of the boys had jumped at Jake and lunged at him with his knife.

With reflexes he had never had to use before, Jake jumped out of the way of the knife. Before his attacker had a chance to respond, he kicked him hard in the knee, so hard that it made the boy cry out in pain and drop the weapon. Without giving him a chance to recover it, Jake saw his opportunity and rushed forwards, tackling the boy in the chest. They ended up on the ground, wrestling. The other boys crowded around them, chanting “Fight, fight, fight!” They were enjoying this, watching to see who would win the wrestling match. But even if Jake won, it wouldn’t be much use to him –all the other boys still had their knives.

“WAIT!” somebody yelled.

Everyone paused and all eyes turned on To’phoro, who had been the one that yelled. Jake lay frozen still, in his opponent’s headlock.

“That’s better,” said To’phoro. “I was trying to tell you, it’s alright. We can let this guy in. He’s safe. Get off him, Yathom.”

Reluctantly, Jake’s opponent, ‘Yathom’, released him from his grip. “Well, alright…” he said. “But are you sure? How do you know?”

“He’s not even from here,” said To’phoro. “He’s lost, says he’s never even been to Dahma before. I pulled him out of the Nahar and he was completely clueless. I think he might have nearly drowned and lost his memory or something.”

Jake, of course, hadn’t lost his memory at all and could remember exactly what had been happening before he had fallen in the river, but he decided to play along anyway.

“Yeah, that’s right,” he said. “I can’t remember what happened to me before I ended up in the river. I’m just looking for a place to stay while I sort myself out.”

“I dunno…” said Yathom, still not convinced, and wanting to justify his hasty attack. “He could be a spy from the militia.”

“Tell you what,” said To’phoro, “I know how to prove to you all he ain’t a spy.”

“How?” said Yathom and the other boys.

“We’ll make him do an initiation.”

“An initiation?” said Jake. “What’s that?”

“Well,” said To’phoro, “if you’re going to stay with us, you’re going to have to run with us too. By that I mean, like, you’re going to have to become one of us—you ’re going to have to show that you can join in with our work.”

“And what’s your ‘work’, then?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” said To’phoro. “We’re thieves!”

*

“’Mashal’? Where’s that?” said Chloe. “I’ve never heard of ‘Mashal’ before. Or ‘Larakia’.”

“Hang on,” said Hannah, who was more interested in something else she had noticed. “What do you mean ‘Princess Hannah’ and ‘Princess Chloe’? We’re not Princesses!”

“Of course you are,” said the woman with the long white hair who had greeted them when they emerged from the tunnel. “You cannot be here in Larakia without being royalty. I am royal too—Princess Katetheuna Muthageteria is my full name and title.”

“But we’ve never even been here before!” said Hannah.

“It doesn’t matter. You came in through the tunnel, like everyone else. You now have citizenship of Larakia. That is how it works.”

“Really? And that makes us Princesses too?”

“That’s right. All Larakian citizens are adopted children of the One True King. And, since your father is a King, that makes you a Princess.”

“Awesome!” said Hannah. “I could get used to this!”

Chloe was pleased too. In all of her favourite books and films, there were princesses. And she always wanted to be them, though she would never admit this to Hannah. And not weedy, wimpy damsel-in-distress type princesses, but princesses with spark and gusto, who fought too. Warrior princesses. However, she still had some reservations.

“But please, Miss Kath…Miss Katey,” said Chloe politely, still concerned with her original question, “just where is ‘Larakia’?”

“Oh. Sorry, my dear. I was unclear. We are on the other side of the Aythian mountains from Dahma, northeast of Tur and Shaveh.”

“I’ve never heard of those places before. We came here from a tunnel in Oxford.”

“Oxford? Where is that?”

“Er…England. In Europe.”

“My dear, I have never heard of any of those places either… This is most puzzling. It does trouble me somewhat that you have never heard the name ‘Mashal’ before, let alone ‘Larakia’… But here you both are: two young girls, one with dark hair, one with light, just as Hotzeh said you would be…”

“Hotzeh? Who’s that?” asked Hannah.

“Oh, Hotzeh is our head Forthteller at the moment. He has the gift of Sight. He does occasionally get things wrong sometimes though. Like last Winter when he forthtold a polar freeze and we had a freak heatwave. But he’s generally spot on. And, as I said, here you both are.”

“You mean you’ve been waiting for us?” said Chloe.

“Exactly. I’ve been waiting for two young girls, one with dark hair, one with light, to arrive here in Larakia through the Tsaphsaphah Tunnel. It has been forthtold that there is a special mission for you to carry out.”

“Oh, how exciting!” exclaimed Hannah. Royalty and a special mission. It was turning out to be a rather eventful day.

“Sorry,” said Chloe, “but we don’t really have time for any sort of special mission right now. We should really be getting back to our class in Oxford. If we go back through the tunnel, will we end up back where we came from?”

“My dear, to my knowledge, the only place that you will return to if you go back through that tunnel is to the Weeping Tree at the foot of Mount Awmeer and, eventually, to the city of Qereth in Aythia.”

“But then how are we going to get back to Oxford?”

“I apologise. ‘Oxford’, ‘England’ and ‘Europe’ may be real places, but they are not places near here or on any map that I have ever seen. This is most strange. I have heard of people being carried straight to Larakia on the Kingwind before…but this really is most strange. We shall have to go to see Hotzeh to ask him what he thinks about it. Come along.”

Without knowing what else to do, in Chloe’s case, and because she was curious to see who this Hotzeh person was, in Hannah’s, the girls followed Kathetheuna into the city. All the rectangular houses were made of the same white stone as the mountains, decorated with marble and, marvellously, here and there with jewels above their doorframes, looking as though they had taken great time and skill to build. The people were friendly and whenever the girls passed someone they smiled and said “Welcome to Larakia!” They were all wearing the same long white robe as Katetheuna, although each had their own thread stitched into it in its own unique colour and pattern, much as each house had a different coloured jewel fixed above the door. The whole city shimmered delicately, but without being garish or overstated, like a watercolour rainbow.

After a while they came to a small house with a huge ruby set in the wall above the door frame. Kathetheuna knocked on the wooden door and then led Chloe and Hannah inside.

They came into a marble-floored atrium, with doors going off it at either end. In the middle of this was a large, white-marble chair, at which sat a middle-aged man with dark skin and a long black beard. His own robe had a pattern of leaping red and orange, like flames. His eyes were gazing directly forward at them.

“Hello, Hotzeh,” said Katetheuna. “The two girls have arrived.”

“Ah, excellent!” said the Hotzeh. “And not a moment too soon!”

“That’s right. They came today, just as you said they would.”

“Of course, of course! Welcome, young ladies!

Chloe and Hannah greeted the man. It wasn’t long before they realised that he was blind. He was still staring straight ahead at them, but his eyes weren’t in focus, and he didn’t track them with his pupils. Instead of the normal irises and whites in his eyes, they seemed to contain a fire from another world.

“Something is strange, though, my brother,” said Katetheuna. “They say that they have never been to Mashal before.”

“Really?” said Hotzeh. “That is unusual. Where have you come from then, young ones? Come now, don’t be shy!”

“We’ve come from Oxford, sir,” said Chloe politely, not knowing how to speak properly to a ‘Forthteller’. “In England. Our class was there on a school trip. A tunnel collapsed on us and when we came out, we were here.”

“Oxford, you say?” The man called Hotzeh thought for a moment. “Never heard of it! Most unusual indeed! Are you telling me that you have come here from a world other than Mashal?”

“I think we are,” said Hannah.

“What should we do, sir? We just want to get back to our own world,” said Chloe.

“Does this change anything about the forthtelling, Hotzeh?” said Kathetheuna.

“There can only be one conclusion,” said Hotzeh, “The One True King must have brought you here from your own world in order to carry out your special mission in ours!”

“But what if we don’t want to carry out this special mission?” said Chloe.

“Young lady, if the One True King really has brought you here, I am afraid you will only be able to return to your own world once you have carried out your special mission.”

“What is this ‘special mission’ you’ve been talking about anyway?” asked Hannah

“Why, I thought you’d never ask! To find and to bring here the lost heir to the steward-throne of Larakia.”

“Just finding someone and bringing them here? That doesn’t sound too difficult. I mean, we got here, and we weren’t even trying.”

“Yes. There are just a few complications.”

“What are they?”

“Well, nobody knows who he is, nobody knows his name, and he is probably hundreds of miles away in a dangerous, hostile, foreign country.”

“Ah,” said Hannah. “That does make things a little trickier.”

*

When George awoke, he could immediately hear a loud noise, like the sound of heavy rain. He understood after a few moments that it was the sound of an enormous crowd of people cheering. His whole body ached. Of course, it was dark again. But this time he didn’t seem to be in a pit; rather he was inside a small, metal box. He barely had enough room to stand up. There wasn’t space to take one step in any direction.

Without warning, one side of the box slid up as it was opened by some kind of device and light flooded George’s vision. The noise got much louder. He stumbled out onto a sandy floor, blinking and rubbing his eyes. There was indeed a huge crowd of people seated all around him, cheering and bellowing at the top of their voices, almost deafening him. In front of them was a huge wooden barrier, too tall to climb, which made a big circle around the sand.  He was in an arena.

“PEOPLE OF NACHASH!” shouted a voice even louder than the crowd. “WELCOME TO YOUR WEEKLY ENTERTAINMENT DEATHMATCH! THESE PRISONERS WILL NOW FIGHT TO THE DEATH! THE LAST REMAINING SURVIVOR WILL WIN A CHANCE TO BE RECRUITED INTO THE ARMY OF SHUL! COMBATANTS, BEGIN! KILL OR BE KILLED!”

There were other figures near George on the sand, not in the crowd, other men who had just been released from their own metal boxes. Across from where they stood, on the far section of the arena barrier that separated them from the crowd, were a number of bladed and close-range weapons mounted on the wall.

“BEGIN! KILL OR BE KILLED!” shouted the voice again.

George spun round to see if there was any other way out. Of course, there wasn’t. Behind him were a number of other soldiers in the same black armour as Khilliarkos, the man who had captured him, though without the spiked shoulders and horns. They were all holding longbows notched with arrows, which were pointed right at George and the other prisoners. The message was clear: If they tried to escape, or didn’t choose a weapon to fight one another, they would be shot.

The other men were already dashing towards the weapons. As soon as George realised this he ran as fast as he could towards the barrier, ignoring the pain in his chest and limbs, trying as hard as he could to tune it out. Some of the others got there first and broke away with the weapons they had picked up, but one of them stayed by the rack of weapons, trying with a huge mace to stop anyone else near him from picking anything up. George stayed out of his way and grabbed the first weapon he came to, a short sword, and then tried to put as much distance between the rack and himself as possible, without getting too close to the archers. As he glanced back behind him, George saw someone cut down the mace-wielder with a horrifying gash to the back from a longsword. He felt as if he was going to be sick. The crowd went mad with noise. George picked out a few calls from close by in the front row.

“Kill! Let’s see some more blood!”

“Chase the stragglers! Don’t let them get away!”

“Break their bones! Spill their guts!”

The rest of the men reached the wall and selected their weapons too. They began to fight with one another with the wild frenzy of people who have nothing to lose, who have no family or friends, no life to go back to, just the single, driving will to stay alive. Kill or be killed.   

George kept well back. He wanted to stay alive too and he had one simple tactic: Keep himself out of the way. He could not fight. He could not kill, even to be avoid being killed. His whole body was shaking. He tightened his grip on his sword and gritted his teeth.

The man with the longsword went down to a man with a trident and net. A man with a pair of long knives let out a blood-curdling scream as an axe took off one of his arms. Another man dropped his weapon and made a run for it, then dropped to the ground, a flurry of the black soldiers’ arrows protruding from his back.

George stayed just clear enough of the melee to avoid being drawn into combat, but close enough to it to avoid the soldiers that stood at the perimeter of the arena, threatening to put an arrow in him too if he tried to escape. One of the other prisoners spotted him and made to run at him an attack, but another opponent got in his way and cut him down first.

“Coward!” people started shouting from the crowd.

Sweat dripped down George’s forehead and arms. He didn’t care if what he was doing was cowardly; he needed to stay alive.

The problem was that after what only seemed like a few minutes, there was only one other combatant left. A hulking great man carrying a net and a trident. He was wearing a metal helmet, but George could see ferocious eyes staring out from under the visor. He looked as though he had done this before. He looked thirsty for more blood. He looked around for another opponent, and then saw George. The man started to walk towards him. The crowd roared their approval.

“TWO COMBATANTS REMAIN!” bellowed the impossibly loud voice. “KILL OR BE KILLED!”

The man began walking towards George, net and trident at the ready. The trident’s spikes were dripping. It was useless. They were the only two left. George couldn’t’ avoid it any more. He would have to stand and fight.

“Please!” he called out to the man, loud enough to be heard by him, and he hoped not loud enough to be heard by the cheering crowd. “I don’t want to fight you! We don’t have to do this! I didn’t ask to come here!”

“You think I asked to be here, boy?” said the man with malice. “I’m just trying to stay alive. And you’re in the way of that. So you have to die.”

The man ran at George and threw his net. George struck out at it with the sword he had picked up, but instead of slicing through it got tangled in it and he only succeeded in making it flop the ground in a heap, out of his hand. The trident followed fast. George leapt to one side to avoid being skewered. More thrusts followed. George moved as fast as he could to get out of their way, then ran backwards away from them.

“Please! Have mercy!” yelled George as he ran. “I don’t want to fight you!”

The noise of the crowd grew deafening. He could hear them chanting “Kill the coward! Kill the coward!”  

The trident caught George in the arm with a lucky blow from behind. A big red furrow opened up in his tricep. He cried out in pain.

Then George crashed into the barrier. Somehow his legs had carried him back to the rack of weapons. He picked up the first thing his hands settled on, a scythe–a wooden pole with a long curved blade attached to the end, usually used by farmers for harvesting. He turned and struck out wildly with it. The pole of it clanged into the trident, knocking it aside as it came at him again. Where it would have impaled him in the stomach, this time the trident sliced open a cut at the side of his abdomen. George cried out once more. His opponent was showing him no mercy. But this time the trident kept going, and plunged into the wood of the barrier behind George, sticking into it temporarily.

George used his chance to dash away again, running back towards the centre of the arena. But he discovered he couldn’t run properly any more; the wound in his side was too painful. Another shout came from the crowd. George turned round to see what was going on. The man with the trident had wrenched his weapon free from the wood and was bearing down on him, on his way to finish his work and deliver the killing strike.

Panic took George. He stumbled over his feet. The man was nearly on him. It was too late. George was going to fall and leave himself exposed. This was it. As he fell, with one final effort of desperation or instinct, he was never sure which, George flung the scythe around to defend himself. His arms went rigid as the scythe hit something.

George shut his eyes as he hit the ground. He kept them shut and scrunched up his face, readying himself for the worst.

But, to his surprise, nothing happened. The crowd had gone completely silent.

Slowly George opened his eyes. In front of him the man with the trident twitched, the blade of George’s scythe sticking out from deep in the right side of his chest.

The man fell backwards, dead, the scythe still in his body.

There was a vast, confused pause.

“PEOPLE OF NACHASH!” bellowed the announcer. “WE HAVE A NEW CHAMPION OF THE ARENA!”

The crowd went crazy.

“Coward! That wasn’t a fair fight!”

“Bring in the next combatants; let them have a go at him!”

“No, he won it fair and square, no cheating!”

George stood up. He was panting heavily. His side leaked red. He looked down and realised what he had done. Then he threw up. Somewhere he could hear the crowd laughing and mocking him in disgust. But this was drowned out by other thoughts in his mind. He had killed someone. He was a murderer. Even if he had been forced. Even if he had been acting in self-defence. Even if it had been a reflex. He had killed someone.

The world became a blur. Some of the soldiers with the bows approached him and forcibly took his weapon from him. He did not put up a protest. He was led to a podium where a short, fat man with a very loud voice lifted up his hand and bellowed some more announcements that only echoed around faintly inside his skull. Then he was led by more soldiers out of the arena through a passageway and a tunnel and back into the cell that he had been waiting in before the fight had started.

He was pushed in and the door slammed and locked behind him once more. They said something to him before they walked off, but he didn’t listen to it. He hit the floor.

All the while, all that he could think was that he had killed someone. He had killed someone. He was a murderer.

‘PRINCE, TWINS, DRAGON’ CHAPTER TWO: ARRIVING

Read here or at https://www.wattpad.com/story/96454834-prince-twins-dragon

Chapter Two: Arriving

Jake thought he was going to drown. He continued to kick out against the weeds that entangled him but this only wrapped him up in them even more. He struggled and squirmed and writhed around with all his might, but it was no use. After some time his body went limp from exhaustion and he lay there suspended in the dark, murky water, bound by the weeds, holding on to the very last of his breath. He was going to die down here, he thought. He felt sad that he hadn’t lived a very long life. He hadn’t really had a chance to do anything much yet. He thought about his Mum, who would be the only one to cry over him. He thought about his Dad, whom he missed terribly. He wondered if there was something he was supposed to do now that he was about to die, like praying or something like that.

All of a sudden an object lanced into the water next to him. He was only dimly aware of it in the darkness, but there was a flash of some kind of metal and he felt the weeds loosen their grip on him. Someone had cut them! Jake kicked upwards with all the small strength that was left in him, willing himself back towards the surface, back towards life, and felt a hand reach out to grab his shirt, pulling him upwards too.

He surfaced above the water and took a big, gasping gulp of air:

Huhhhhhhh!

He had made it out alive.

There was light all around him, replacing the murk of the river water. For a few moments he was unable to see anything as his eyes adjusted to it, so he stayed where he was, treading water, drinking in more big, greedy gulps of air. He heard a splash as someone got out of the water nearby. As his vision returned, an outstretched hand came slowly into focus in front of him.

“Here, let me help you out.”

Jake took the hand.

He clambered up onto the bank with the help of the kind stranger who had rescued him. To his surprise, the hand actually belonged to a boy not much older than Jake was. At first he thought that he might be one of his classmates, but he did not recognise him. The boy had dark hair and a round, mischievous face currently set in a wide, cheeky smile. He was also wearing a tatty kind of tunic, riddled with holes, like something that might be worn by a peasant out of a historical re-enactment. Jake thought it made him look like a complete prat.

“That was a close one!” said the boy. “I thought you were a goner there for a moment!”

“Yeah, thank you for helping me out and everything,” said Jake.

Now that he was alright again, he felt more than a little embarrassed. He had fallen over by accident and nearly drowned himself in front of his entire class. Mrs Fink was going to be furious, and so was his Mum when she found out later. Aaron would probably find it hilarious.

Jake looked round, expecting to see all of these people. Instead, he nearly fell back into the river from shock. Mrs Fink had vanished. Aaron had vanished. His whole class had vanished. The botanical gardens had vanished. All of Oxford had vanished.

In its place, which was what shocked him, was a totally different city: Instead of the botanical gardens, hundreds of small stone buildings; instead of just the river Isis, a series of numerous crisscrossing rivers and waterways; instead of just the little boats being pushed along using poles, all kinds of boats, rafts and skiffs of all different shapes and sizes, being rowed, sailed and pushed along; and instead of his class, Aaron, Mrs Fink and the rest of the Oxford tourists and population, there were more people dressed in these strange mediaeval-looking clothes, running and bustling about their business.

“Where am I?” said Jake, only just loud enough to hear.

“’Where are you’? Don’t you know?” said his rescuer, looking at him with a puzzled expression. “Why, you’re in Ubal, the finest city this side of the Aythian mountains!”

“What country am I in?”

“In Dahma, you clodhopper! Did you hit your head down there? How did you end up getting all caught up in those river weeds, anyway?”

“Um, I tripped and fell in, I think…” said Jake. He was shaking slightly. How on Earth had he got to this place? What was going on? It didn’t make any sense. ‘Dahma’. He wracked his brains trying to think if he had ever been taught about a country called Dahma in Geography. He had never really paid much attention in Geography, and he couldn’t remember. But even if there was such a country called Dahma, inhabited by these backward people who were still stuck in the Middle Ages, it didn’t make sense. He hadn’t had time to drift all the way to a different country under the water. It was like something out of Dr Who…

A new thought came to him.

“What planet am I on?” said Jake.

“‘Planet’? I don’t know what you mean. You’re in Mashal, if that’s what you’re getting at?”

“Where’s ‘Mashal’?”

“You’ve never been here before? Maybe you did hit your head under the water! Well, welcome to Mashal, then!”They had all vanished.

*

Hannah screamed. Chloe prayed to God for her life.

It had gone completely dark in the tunnel. But to their surprise, the crashing and rumbling of falling rock had stopped. It seemed as though the tunnel had finished collapsing. Everything went quiet. They could no longer even hear the shouts and cries of their teacher and classmates beyond the fallen earth.

Chloe and Hannah lay where they were for a moment in the dark, scared stiff. All they could hear now was the sound of each other breathing.

After a while, Hannah said “Chloe?” For some reason she said it in a whisper, as if she was afraid a louder noise might make the tunnel collapse in on them further.

“Yes?”

“Are you alright?”

“I think so. I scraped my arm a bit but I’m okay. You?”

“Yeah, same. But I’m fine.”

“What should we do now?”

“I don’t know. I suppose we just have to wait for someone to come and rescue us. They saw us get trapped in here, didn’t they?”

“Yes. But they could be ages. What if they never find us? What if they don’t get to us in time? What if there’s too much rock to m-m-move?” Chloe’s voice was quivering.

“Don’t worry! I’m sure it will be fine…” said Hannah. She clasped Chloe’s hand in hers in the darkness. She wasn’t sure that they would be fine but she didn’t know what else to say. She was the braver one; she had to be the braver one.

They lay there for a few more moments, as if expecting someone to appear to rescue them in a matter of minutes. It soon became apparent that this was not going to be the case.

“Do you want to play a game or something to pass the time?” said Chloe eventually. “Like ‘I Spy’?”

“’I Spy’?!” Hannah snorted. “It’s completely dark!”

“Good point.”

“I Spy With My Little Eye, something beginning with ‘N’. Nothing!”

“Well, have you got a better idea, Hannah? Do you know any other games that work in the dark? Or riddles or something?”

“I do kno—Wait a second.” Hannah stopped.

“What is it? Why have you stopped?”

“I just put my other hand out in front of me and…there doesn’t seem to be any rock here anymore.”

“That’s weird.”

“Hang on a minute,” said Hannah. “There’s some space to move here now!” She let go of Chloe’s hand and Chloe felt her push herself up onto her hands and knees beside her and crawl forward into the tunnel.

“Hey, wait for me!” said Chloe.

They crawled forward together in the dark, Hannah in front and Chloe behind.

“There’s no more rock in front of us anymore,” said Hannah. “I can feel it on either side, but not straight ahead. It’s like it’s just disappeared.”

“That’s strange. Keep going, maybe we can find a way out!”

“Did the tour guide mention anything about another tunnel connected to this one?”

“I wasn’t listening because you were talking to me. But we could see straight down the whole of the tunnel before, there weren’t any more tunnels off of it.”

“Hey! I can see a little bit of light up ahead of us!”

“That’s great! Keep moving!”

The two of them continued to crawl forwards towards the light, which changed from a pin-prick, to a circle, to a wide glow that even Chloe could see from behind Hannah. It lit up the walls and floor of the tunnel, which had changed as well. The blue and white panels had gone, replaced by gray stone. After a little while, the gradient of the tunnel got steeper and they found themselves crawling upwards slightly. Soon they could see that there was enough room to stand up in so they got to their feet and continued walking towards the light.  The opening was much more visible now as well. But what was a little odd was that, where they expected to see more of the library through it, instead they could see only the open sky. And snow.

“This is getting really weird now,” said Hannah.

“Why is it snowing in the middle of Summer?” said Chloe.

A gust of cool air blew through the opening. The girls started to run towards it, desperate to be out of the tunnel and also puzzled as to where they were coming out.

As they emerged, they came out into a city made up of buildings built out of white stone and coloured marble.

“Where are we? This doesn’t look like Oxford,” said Chloe.

“I don’t think we’re in Oxford anymore, Chloe,” said Hannah.

She was looking behind them, at where they had just come out of the tunnel. The opening lay at the foot of an enormous mountain. Either side of it more mountains shone majestically in the sunlight. Chloe turned around too and took all of this in, her jaw dropping.   

“Greetings!” came a voice from behind them.

They turned to see a tall lady with long white hair tied back in a plait, wearing a white robe interlaced with a swirling blue pattern. It was hard to tell if she was very old or very young; although her hair was white, her face was very youthful, though from time to time you thought you could notice a few gentle wrinkles as she turned her head a certain way. All in all, she did not look very normal.

“Er, hi there?” said Chloe.

“Hello lady,” said Hannah. “Excuse me, but who are you and what are you doing here and where is here?”

“I am called Katetheuna,” said the woman. “What are your names?”

“I’m Hannah, and this is Chloe.”

“Well Princess Hannah, Princess Chloe, welcome to Ayin, capital of the Kingdom of Larakia, greatest of the Kingdoms of Mashal!”

*

George came up out of unconsciousness very slowly. First, he was simply aware that he was awake, and that he had been having a dream about someone stealing something from him and his being hit by a bus. Second, he became aware that his whole body was aching with pain. He groaned. Third, he remembered that it hadn’t been a dream at all but that this was what had actually happened. It was not a pleasant memory, as you can imagine.

He opened his eyes, which brought no change as he was in complete darkness. Where was he? Had his collision with the bus killed him? He wondered if he had died and gone to Heaven. Or maybe to…the other place.

But no, wait, it wasn’t complete darkness, not yet. Far up above him he could just make out a dull grey light, and what was possibly the sky beyond.

He wasn’t in hospital then, which was his next guess. He seemed to be lying on a floor of earth. It was slightly damp. With a great effort, he sat up, which brought more pain. There was definitely a light of some kind up above him. He felt around with his hands, to discover that he was lying in a small circular area ringed by walls of soil. He appeared to be at the bottom of some sort of pit, or a well. He had no idea how he had got down here. It didn’t make any sense. What he did know was that he had to get out.

There was a movement in the light above. Voices.

“Here, Commander, there’s a catch in this one!” A crass, grubby voice.

“Bring it up.” A voice with depth. Stern, angry, commanding. Like his father’s, George thought.

A moment, and then George had to shuffle out of the way as a length of rope flew down the pit, almost hitting him in the head.

“Hey you down there!” shouted the first voice. “Tie this rope around you, now! Yank twice when you’ve done it!”

George nearly didn’t do it and was about to shout back asking why he should do what the voice said, when he thought better of it. He didn’t know what the first voice had meant by the word ‘catch’ and he didn’t like the sound of it. But his priority at the moment was getting out of this pit, so he wound the rope around himself and tied it in a tight knot, his body complaining with pain all the while.

He yanked on the rope twice and immediately he was pulled upwards. Roughly. He had to put his arms and legs out to stop himself from banging his head against the walls of the pit, which brought more complaints of pain from them. Soon he was out in the dull light and being plonked onto the ground.

That was when George got the surprise of his life: He wasn’t in Oxford any more. He wasn’t even sure if he was in England. He had been pulled up out of the pit into the middle of a wide, flat plain. Actually, it was more of a wilderness than a plain, with barely anything growing in it, just the odd patch of grass or moss on the grey-brown ground. Thick rainclouds (or was it smoke?) filled the air, blocking out most of the sunlight. It was very hot.   

Standing over him where he lay on the floor were two men. The first voice had belonged to a very tall, fat man with a big bushy beard and piercings all over his face. The second voice had belonged to an even taller, but much slimmer, man dressed entirely in black armour the colour of night, complete with spiked shoulder plates and a helmet that covered his eyes, crafted into a two horns at its top. What on earth was going on?

“His legs aren’t broken, Commander. Makes a change!” said the fat man.

“On your feet,” said the man in the armour.

“Can I ask, where am—” said George.

“Silence! You’ll speak when you’re spoken to, slave!” The fat man smacked him around the face.

More pain. George touched his cheek. He felt his lip curl.

“How dare you strike me?” said George. “My father will have something to say about this! I demand that you return me to Oxford at once.”

“I said be quiet!” The fat man struck him again.

Further pain. This time George did not have a reply.

“You thought you could get away, did you, filth?” the armoured man said now. “Thought you could escape from Shul unscathed?”

George said nothing this time, partly because he wasn’t sure if he was being invited to speak, and partly to spite the man. His heart was pounding hard inside his chest. He wouldn’t admit it to himself, but he was afraid.

“Answer!” said the fat man.

“I have no idea what you’re talking about…” said George. It was the truth.

“Address your superior properly! That’s ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, Commander’!” This time George held his arms up to protect himself, but the fat man only grabbed them, pulled them out of the way, then hit him across the face again.

“How have you ended up wearing that absurd attire?” said the armoured man.

George looked down, wiping blood from his mouth. “What, this? This is my school uniform. Commander,” he added quickly.

“‘School uniform’? What is this nonsense? You are lying. Tell me where you got those ridiculous clothes. Continue your discipline, 000 Doulos.”

Another strike which hit George’s arms so hard he fell over onto the floor. He just about managed to push himself up onto his hands and knees.

“Please, sir…I mean, Commander…I really don’t know what you’re talking about…A little while ago I was in Oxford, and then someone stole my phone, and I got hit by a bus… I have no idea how I got here…I’ve never been here before!”

“More lies. You will suffer for this insubordination.”

The fat man kicked George in the chest this time, with enough force to turn him over. He felt a wave of agony spread across his body. Against his best efforts, George fainted.

The last thing he heard before he passed out was the man in black armour saying: “Little worm must have gone delirious from the heat after falling into the trap. Never been here before, have you? Well then welcome to Mashal, filth!”